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‘Jenin, Jenin’ Article Is Propaganda Clothed as Journalism

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Mohammad Bakri in court in June, 2020.
'Jenin Jenin' Filmmaker and actor Mohammad Bakri in court in June, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

After reading Doron Koren’s story on the soldiers who are suing Mohammad Bakri (“The Israelis 'Fighting Till the Last Drop of Blood' Against Palestinian Documentary,” Monday), I watched the film again. The first time I saw it was 18 years ago, at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. Outside the Cinematheque then there were protests against the film. Shouting and spitting. Ultimately, the Cinematheque gave in and stopped showing the movie.

>> Read more: The Israelis 'Fighting Till the Last Drop of Blood' Against Palestinian Documentary

>> Read more: Analysis | Palestinian Deaths, and Other Points Haaretz Failed to Mention

The film begins with a mute man, a resident of the Jenin refugee camp. He runs back and forth through the alleyways, describing, with grunts and gestures, what happened there. He mimes “people shooting” with his hands, acts out the digging of a grave, and finally he lets his head fall back, with his arms spread and eyes closed. Like in the movies. He is dead. Opening a film with a mute’s testimony is a statement. You wouldn’t interview a mute witness so he could tell you just what happened. To know what happened you need words. A mute speaks in experiences.

The background to the event about which “Jenin, Jenin” was made is known to everyone who lives here. Still, 18 years have passed, filled with military operations and wars, so Koren begins his piece by refreshing our memory: “The IDF embarked on Operation Defensive Shield in West Bank cities in March 2002 after a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Park Hotel in Netanya and murdered 30 people, many of them elderly. It was the peak of a bloody month in which more than 135 Israelis were killed in terror attacks, and the peak of the second intifada, in which more than 1,000 Israelis were killed, a majority in suicide bombings in the heart of Israeli cities.”

A screetshot from 'Jenin, Jenin,' showing Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield, April 2002.

The Wikipedia entry for “Second Intifada – Casualties” notes that 3,330 Palestinians were also killed. Some also count the 1,200 Palestinians killed in Operation Defensive Shield. Even the IDF, I thought, makes note of the number of Palestinians it killed. But in this article they are nowhere to be found.

When the IDF operated in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield, the camp was closed to the media. Information about what was happening there was supplied by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. Bakri entered the camp right after the army left. His camera shows destruction. People in total shock. Many lost family members. Others only lost their homes.

How do you make a movie about war in wartime? You ask: What happened? Obviously, for each side, something different happened. Parties that are fighting are also fighting over a story. The strong and the weak experience war differently. Is it impossible to make a film about a war while it is happening, because the immediacy thwarts the search for truth? But this is exactly the time to make a movie about a war, when it is happening.

Does anyone or should anyone sue over the same factual accuracy regarding the interview of a mother whose son was just killed in the army? The survivor of a terror attack? A family whose home was just struck by a missile? No such questions are raised in Koren’s article. It’s absolutely clear that his heart is with the fighters who claim that Bakri is slandering them. They’ve sued Bakri repeatedly over the last 18 years, losing but coming back to sue again anyway. Koren is free to write a scathing opinion piece condemning Bakri and his film. But he has written an article that purports to present a true picture versus Bakri’s supposedly one-sided distortions.

Koren does not cite a single positive line about Bakri from the rulings of the various judges who exonerated him time after time. He only cites the criticism. From all the lengthy testimony of director Ram Loevy, who spoke in court in Bakri’s favor and gave a detailed explanation about documentary filmmaking, Koren’s article quotes the one and only bit that is detrimental to Bakri, making it appear to exemplify everything – and thereby distorts the testimony.

Koren celebrates along with the fighters what they see when they look in the mirror – a bubble in which Israelis can do no wrong – good, brave and merciful soldiers. The Palestinians should say thank you, they got off easy. Combat soldiers with a soft touch. He cheers the popular claim in those days about judges echoing leftist elites to protect the criminal Bakri from real justice.

Koren seems eager to join the plaintiffs in court and shout “Liar, liar!” when Bakri gets up to testify. Essentially this is what he does in his text. A text that masquerades as journalism but is really propaganda. Propaganda whose timing, ahead of the verdict in the case against Bakri, clearly indicates whom it is aimed at – “the judges [who] made Bakri a winner and the soldiers and the bereaved families humiliated,” as one of the plaintiffs says.

Why does the Gallery supplement of Haaretz’s Hebrew edition (where the article first appeared on August 5) publish an inciting and propagandistic text against Mohammad Bakri on its front page? Are the editors so removed from reality that they don’t see that arrayed against Bakri are the most powerful forces in Israeli society – including one soldier with the rank of IDF Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, who (using a silly rhyme in Hebrew to make his point) criticized Bakri in a speech a month ago, saying, “We can’t allow freedom of expression to allow debasement”? Forces that exert tremendous pressure on the court hearing his case – next to which the support of Haaretz is worth about much as a burnt match.

Perhaps for those editors, the whole world is the Haaretz Facebook page, the whole world is the Friday Gallery supplement where a positive but complex, in-depth interview with Bakri was published several months ago. So therefore, the thinking seems to go, this same Bakri whom we so kindly indulged not long ago via journalist Nirit Anderman, ought to just be grateful for that privilege and understand that the world is not all rosy.

Or perhaps, because the folks in charge at Haaretz do know the world around them and know that they are a tiny island in the heart of the storm, they are trying to calm the surrounding waves by offering some “balance” to those who accuse them of one-sidedness.

We can picture how this holy balance is meant to be attained. Haaretz already published Doron Koren’s piece as a cover story to please right-wing readers. The court system will also prove that it is attentive to public murmurings and rule against Mohammad Bakri. And so a narrow path to reconciliation among the divided Jewish public will be paved – at the expense of the Arab director.

Nadav Lapid is a film director, screenwriter and author.

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