Ricochets From Jenin - Continued

Thirteen of the soldiers who were killed in the Jenin refugee camp were from the battalion of Yoram Lavi. It's said that he sat with the bereaved families for hours, that he didn't leave them for a second. Others also knew soldiers who were killed, Dr. Zangen most of all. He was by the side of those who were wounded and was also with those who bled to death.

Everyone who is here was personally offended by the criticism that was leveled at the IDF after the battle, was affronted by the media offensive against their brigade commander, Lieutenant Colonel (res.) Didi Yedidya. The wounds haven't yet healed. Avi Gal: "People told me, what do you want? After all, a counter-film came out ["The Road to Jenin," by Pierre Rehov, which was broadcast on Channel One, the state channel], the Israeli version, a reaction to Bakri's film. It was on television and there's your balance.' That drove me crazy, because the truth in this case is not in the middle. This isn't one more story with two versions and so you make a compromise. This is a lie and an anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic manipulation on the one hand, and proven facts about what really happened, on the other hand. It's not Bakri against a few soldiers. The question is where the state takes a stand in the case of a blood libel that is liable to go down as a notorious `massacre.' That's what our battle is about."

Yoram Lavi: "A bereaved father [Salomon Azouri, Eyal's father] is sitting here with us, and I don't know if I can speak like this next to him. But someone has to say it now, and for everyone to hear: all 23 of our buddies paid with their lives only because of one thing - the high combat morality we practiced in this battle. It was purity of arms [the traditional Israeli phrase, meaning that weapons are used only in military confrontations and not against noncombatants] at the total level. It was caution in the face of a civilian population at the total level. And then Bakri comes out with this film and extracts hallucinated `testimonies' from people that show the complete opposite.

"No other army in the world would have fought this battle the way we did. I am telling you that when it was over, the army held internal discussions about whether we hadn't been excessively cautious. Whether we weren't too moral toward them in a way that bordered on being immoral toward ourselves, toward the lives of our soldiers. Really. Because, you know, we could have mowed them down, destroyed without giving the matter a second thought, and then maybe some of our buddies would be sitting with us here now. But that's not what we did. And we paid a terrible price. Then he comes and portrays us like wild men, like Nazis, turns everything upside down."

Ron Teicher, a platoon commander in one of the brigade's battalions, has been involved in the matter for the past 11 months: "We acted with insane, suicidal humanity. We did everything to avoid harming innocent people. We gave them innumerable opportunities to leave and evacuate the houses. We announced it over and over. We literally implored them. The distance between the truth and this film - it's an absolute nightmare. It can't be bridged. You take such extreme action in order to protect your enemy, and then you are portrayed as a war criminal. As a murderer. As a wild animal thirsty for the blood of men, women and children."

Lavi: "The widow of one of the guys told me, `Those who take pity on the cruel will in the end be cruel to the pitying.' I can't get that out of my head."

Salomon Azouri, the bereaved father, whose son, Eyal, was killed in Jenin: "It's hard for me to talk about it, but I was one of the eight parents who returned the citation our sons received to the defense minister. And that was exactly the reason: because they were too humane. They thought too much about the others and not enough about our children. Where is the limit, I ask you. Is there no limit? I came to Fuad [Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the defense minister at the time] and I said, `Sorry, thanks very much. Why did my son die? I gave him back the certificate. I told him that what happened there wasn't moral toward me, toward my boy."

In a separate conversation afterward, Geula Bosidan, the mother of Amit Bosidan, from Bat Yam, who was killed in the battle of Jenin, said: "Try to imagine what we are going through. Our boys, who fell in Jenin, are being subjected to public trial in Israel and the world, as war criminals. And we, the parents, have to find the strength to join this campaign. Is that my job? Is that, too, my responsibility? No normal country would allow a filmmaker like Bakri to come out with a film like this. A state and army should stand behind their decisions and offer defense, period. During the months of our struggle, not one public body, including the defense establishment, gave us backing. We knocked on doors. Who can understand that? What is the message for the young people who are about to be drafted?"

The group later enlisted the support of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz. On July 18, 2003, representatives of the group met with Mofaz, who was chief of staff at the time of the operation, and in the wake of the meeting received a public letter of support from him. Among other points, Mofaz wrote: "The film is mendacious, tendentious and inflammatory, purporting to present a supposedly documentary description, whereas the events it describes are fabricated and products of the imagination. The IDF, showing optimum humanitarian consideration, fought a hard battle against terrorist infrastructures that operated there... The film alleges that a massacre was perpetrated... that IDF soldiers committed war crimes, executions and various other false claims... It is the fruit of false propaganda... The film is intended to harm the IDF and the State of Israel and to weaken our staying power within the framework of the war against terrorism. It will not succeed. For these reasons I strengthen the hand of the fighters and the bereaved families in their opposition to public screenings of the film. Their struggle is our struggle."

After his experience at the Cinematheque, when he was forced off the stage, Dr. Zangen drew up a document that he takes everywhere. It spells out what he considers the biggest "seven lies" that Bakri's film contains. The document has been reported in the print and electronic media in Israel and abroad. The lies that Dr. Zangen found are: 1. that a wing of the hospital in Jenin was shelled and destroyed; 2. that Israeli soldiers deliberately shot at the hand and then the foot of a 75-year-old man (Zangen himself examined and treated the man) ; 3. that soldiers smashed children's heads against walls, shot children and shot an infant in the chest, the bullet exiting from his back - no such body was found; 4. that the army prevented the evacuation of a wounded boy and that someone tried to save him by using a finger to open an air passage in the boy's injured neck; 5. that the IDF dug mass graves for Palestinian dead; 6. that Israeli planes bombed Jenin; 7. that the entire refugee camp was leveled - in fact, the area that was destroyed constitutes about 3 percent of the camp.

Zangen has attached himself to Bakri like a leech. He has been able to prevent the film from being screened in several places, and he has clashed with him publicly after screenings of the film at two cinematheques and on campuses. In the past few months, Bakri himself has cut from the film several scenes that were considered problematic - "for artistic reasons," he says, though Zangen says he did so "in the wake of exposure of their lies."

A bizarre situation has developed: even as the High Court of Justice discusses the video of the film that was submitted to the court - which the censors banned - Bakri is issuing new, self-censored versions. A comparison between the original version and the "softened" one shows that at least two of the "seven lies" have been deleted. Another bit that has been cut is the sentence, "The tank is rolling over them, the tank is rolling over them," which accompanied the image of a tank that supposedly ran over a row of bound Palestinian men.

However, this is not enough for the reservists. As far as they are concerned, the film remains "a pageant of lies that vilifies the army and the state." They are determined to expose all the lies to the last of them, until the film is completely shelved. Indeed, some of the accusations in the film have already been refuted. Bakri's interviewees say that the entire refugee camp was destroyed, whereas only a small part was razed. Testimonies that innocent Palestinians, including children, were shot to death create the impression of a massacre; in fact, there was a fierce battle, in which noncombatants were also wounded and killed, but there was no massacre. An official report released by the United Nations found that 52 Palestinians were killed in the battle of Jenin. Of these, according to the Israeli authorities, 38 were armed and 14 were civilians. Human rights groups maintain that about 20 of these killed were civilians. A report issued by the European Union found that there were four women and two children (youths) among the Palestinian dead.

Bakri dedicated the film to the producer Iyad Samoudi. According to the text beneath his photograph, Samoudi was not involved in the fighting but innocently wandered around the camp with three friends and was killed by IDF fire. Caspi cites information from the IDF Spokesperson's Office: "Iyad Tahar Samoudi, 25, a resident of the village of Yamun, was killed by IDF soldiers during operational activity on June 23, 2002. A pistol, pistol clips and three mobile phones were found on his body. He was a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades. He usually bore arms, including rifles and pistols. He supplied combat materiel to Fatah activists for terrorist attacks. After his death, 30 pipe bombs were found which he hid in his yard and which had been entrusted to him for perpetrating terrorist acts."

In the film Bakri shows innocent, random interviewees such as Akram Abu Saba, a resident who is not being allowed to live the quiet family life he wants. Caspi shows documents of the Shin Bet security service and the IDF Spokesperson's Office according to which Saba is "a member of Force 17 and has ties and hostile terrorist activity with Karim Awis, a senior Fatah activist. Abu Saba held a victory feast at his home after a terrorist attack at Umm al-Fahm ..."

Then there is Nabil Darwish Sabihath, another random interviewee in Bakri's film. Caspi has the following information from the IDF Spokesperson's Office: "He is a member of Preventive Intelligence, a veteran Fatah activist. In 1983 he was convicted of murdering the mukhtar [headman] of his village. His brother is a senior officer in Force 17."

In Israel, Bakri premiered the film at the end of last October in the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem cinematheques. Caspi found out that the true premiere took place on September 5, 2002, at the Al-Kasbah Cinema in the center of Ramallah. The guest of honor was the Palestinian information minister, Yasser Abed Rabbo, who at the end of the film gets a special thank-you from Bakri.

In one of his submissions to the High Court, attorney Avigdor Feldman, who is representing Bakri, referred to the original version of the film, in which the scenes considered the most serious appear, such as the tank that is supposedly crushing bound Palestinians and the "anti-Semitic scene," in which one of the interviewees says: "The Jews have proved that they have no pity. They are not creatures of God. They are the work of human beings. They, the Israelis, are not God's creatures. It may be heresy to say this, but they are not God's creatures. Maybe they learned to reproduce genetically a long time ago and we didn't know, maybe back in the 1930s or 1940s."

In reference to the version of the film that includes these scenes, Feldman told the High Court that it is not relevant, as it "was not distributed, not even for non-commercial screenings, and there is no intention to make use of it." Dr. Zangen maintains that precisely that version, the original one, is the one now being distributed and screened around the world. An Israeli who lives in Los Angeles, Udi Epstein, who owns a film distribution company, received a video from the film's distributor, and he confirms Zangen's contention.

"I watched the video," Epstein says. "It's 45 minutes long. All the war crimes are described in it, including testimony about pulverizing bodies, shooting children, the scene of the tank and the scene in which the interviewee says that the Jews were not created by God."

Bakri claims he made an honest artistic film in good faith, which stemmed from his identification with the pain of the camp's residents. Caspi compared the Hebrew and English translations of the film and found differences. Thus, in the Hebrew translation the producer Iyad Samoudi "fell a martyr [nafal halal] to IDF bullets," whereas the English says he "was murdered by Israeli soldiers." In regard to clothes that the soldiers told Palestinians to remove for fear they might be concealing explosive belts beneath, the Hebrew says, "I found clothes that they made people take off," whereas the English is: "These clothes belonged to some victims." Concerning the attacks on children, the Hebrew is "sometimes they smashed a child's head against the wall, sometimes they shot a child," and the English is: "Once their duty was over, the soldiers murdered the children." In Hebrew, the explicit word "massacre" is not used: "What they did in the camp proves that they did not behave like human beings." The English: "The genocide they committed in our camp shows that they are not human."

Feldman declines to comment on the differences between the versions, on the scenes Bakri cut in editing and on the reasons he did so. He refers me to Bakri. Bakri says: "I have nothing to add."

Lieutenant Colonel Didi Yedidya, commander of the Fifth Brigade, supports the struggle of his troops in terms of substance, but has doubts about the way they are going about it. "The High Court of Justice is not the right arena," he says. "The censors banned the film, and rightly so. But there are enough ways to get around that, and whoever wants to, will. So the debate about screening the film in movie theaters is not the heart of the matter. The real confrontation has to be with a view to the international arena. That's where the greatest potential for damage lies. I would say that in Israel there is an extremely small minority that is capable of believing the lies in the film. However, in the world at large a film is circulating that shows massacre, the murder of children and other horrors, and there is no good response at the state level."

What do you expect the state to do?

"My gut feeling is that our publicity is not coping with the issue as it should. In principle, the state could sue Bakri abroad, too, wherever the film is screened. Lawyers told me that this is the best and most effective way. This isn't one of those cases where we have to make do with the necessary minimum. The response should come at the highest levels, from the state itself."

Mohammed Bakri is unwilling to talk. He is now working on a film about the banning of "Jenin, Jenin." On July 27, he sent the High Court a letter asking that the proceedings in his petition be speeded up. "I am Mohammed Bakri, a citizen of the state, a native of the village of Baana, in Galilee," he wrote. "Since I filed the petition asking the court to revoke the decision of the [Film Censorship] Board, which banned my film `Jenin, Jenin,' I have been assaulted by private individuals on the street, as well as by public figures, such as the deputy defense minister, Ze'ev Boim, who stated in a debate in the Knesset plenum, `This Bakri, who enjoys the freedom of a citizen here, he, his family, his relatives are involved in acts of terrorism ... And instead of condemning it, he stands behind this terrorism.'

"All my civil and artistic life I have fought extremists and manifestations of violence, and I have preached struggle by legitimate means, and not by violence, in order to achieve peace and coexistence in our region. All the films [I have been in], as well as my work in the theater for 30 years attest to my intentions. It's true that when members of my family were arrested I didn't believe they had been involved in the loathsome act they were charged with, and I attacked the media for judging the family with sensational headlines such as `The murder family' and `Accomplices of death,' which appeared in the [mass-circulation dailies] Ma'ariv and Yedioth. However, after it turned out that two members of my family were in fact involved in a harsh terrorist attack at Meron, I condemned the criminal act from every platform, including television and radio.

"Since the banning of the film, I have not felt safe as I make my way around the country, as someone who tarnished the honor of the entire country, and I feel like a citizen who has been publicly abandoned to his fate. Only the High Court of Justice, by issuing a judgment as quickly as possible, might be able to save my reputation and restore something of my human dignity, which has been trampled day after day for almost eight months. I would be grateful to you if you could be considerate of my situation as an artist, as a person and as the father of a family, and deliver the judgment as soon as possible. I am a public sector employee who is currently appearing with Habimah [repertoire company] and I am exposed to danger by an inflamed mob that doesn't know the whole truth."

Attorney Feldman also feels hurt. He can't decide what aggravates him more - the film censors or attorney Caspi. Feldman decided to represent Bakri on a pro bono basis. He is unwilling to accept the silencing of creative artists and the infringement of freedom of expression that he finds in the censors' decision. The State Prosecutor's Office sent in attorney Dina Zilber, an experienced, skilled lawyer, but Feldman had a sense of almost certain victory. Then Caspi and Zangen popped up and have been like a bone in his throat ever since.