The Israeli Film That Refuses to Portray IDF Soldiers as Monsters or Heroes

Yariv Horowitz’s feature film Rock Ba-Kasba, nominated for eight prizes in the Ophir competition held by Israel’s film academy, follows a small group soldiers sent into Gaza during the first Intifada 'to restore order.'

David Grossman, in the introduction to his collection of non-fiction essays Death as a Way of Life, writes that beyond the sound, the fury and the grand political rhetoric, there is a silent place buried inside the soul of every Israeli and every Palestinian, where each one knows that this terrible conflict, in the end, is futile. Politicians are required to give the impression that they know where they are taking the country. Political commentators are supposed to make sense of events, and potentially suggest ways of action.

Artists have the prerogative to depict the human reality of situations like the Israel-Palestine conflict. And this reality, more often than not, is one of profound futility. I am writing this apropos Yariv Horowitz’s feature film Rock Ba-Kasba, nominated for eight prizes in the Ophir competition held by Israel’s film academy on Tuesday.

First a proviso: Horowitz is a close friend, and I have accompanied this project for a number of years. I do not write therefore as an objective critic, but from a position of personal involvement and identification with the film’s viewpoint. I take this opportunity precisely because it liberates me from the demand to objectively analyze Israel’s current situation, or “Ha-matzav,” as Israelis call it, and to look at human reality as depicted by the camera’s unforgiving eye.

Rock ba-Kasba follows a small group of soldiers sent into the Gaza strip at the beginning of the first Intifada “to restore order,” as their commander, powerfully portrayed by Angel Bonani, says.

One of the soldiers is killed in a chase after Palestinian youth. The commander posts four of his comrades on the roof of a Palestinian home to look for further disturbances. The film focuses on the evolving human situation: the Palestinian family that is worried about being branded as collaborators, and the soldiers who do not know how to handle the situation.

Horowitz refuses to idealize any of the participants in this conflict. There is no depiction of stoic heroism as in Ridley Scott’s (in itself masterful) Black Hawk down. We see anxious and confused youngsters who would love to go back home. Tomer, the film’s protagonist, is increasingly struck by the absurdity of the situation, particularly when he is required to hand over a Palestinian to the Shin Bet security services for questioning in the middle of the night.

The film does not grant the viewer closure. When the youngsters finally move out of the Gaza strip, they wearily watch the next company moving in to take their places. They no longer think that order will be restored. They just want to go home.

The film will satisfy neither Israel’s fervent defenders nor its tireless detractors. Israel’s idealizers will find fault with Horowitz’s refusal to portray IDF soldiers as stylized heroes. Instead he focuses on their simple needs ranging from hunger to protection from the heat. Israel’s detractors will fume because the soldiers are not depicted as evil but as simply human. Their search for a harsh political condemnation of Israel will be frustrated by Horowitz’s disciplined focus on human micro-realities. In this Horowitz joins the great tradition of Catch 22 and MASH of depicting the absurdity of war.

Watching the film’s opening scene the twenty-three years since 1989 flashed through my mind. At the time, Yitzhak Rabin was minister of defense, and the first intifada became a turning point in his political position, when he realized that the occupation was not a tenable status quo. Elected prime minister, he initiated the now defunct Oslo process. The film’s soundtrack repeatedly plays the announcement of the Voice of Peace, a radio station founded and run by tireless peace activist Abie Nathan, who has since died.

“This is the voice of peace, from somewhere in the Mediterranean…,” would be broadcast from the station, until it was closed in 1993, when Nathan felt that his message of peace was being implemented through the Oslo process.

We now know how terribly futile all of this turned out to be. Netanyahu takes pride for having killed off the Oslo process. He should share the credit with the Palestinians: the second Intifada ruined whatever chances were left to move ahead with the process. Israel no longer occupies the Gaza strip, but this has brought peace neither to Gaza’s population nor to that of Southern Israel.

Along with the whole region, Israel is bracing for the next round of violence that will be sponsored by the deadly ping-pong between the varieties of Islamic extremism and Netanyahu and Barak’s apocalyptic worldview. And it will be up to artists like Yariv Horowitz to depict the futility of it all.