Israel’s Most Controversial New TV Series Reveals the Lives of Palestinian Inmates

The creators of 'Megiddo,' a film that outraged Culture Minister Miri Regev, spent a year and half at a huge security prison documenting the tense reality there.

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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A scene from  'Megiddo.'
A scene from 'Megiddo.'Credit: YesDocu
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

The new documentary series “Megiddo” is rocking Israel's culture world now that the Culture Ministry has demanded that Israeli film foundations reveal who has approved or rejected scripts in recent years. The demand, made by a committee set up by Culture Minister Miri Regev, called out the series, which documents the lives of Palestinian security prisoners in Megiddo Prison.

The ministry demanded that the New Fund for Cinema and TV provide without delay information on the process which resulted in the approving of funding for “Megiddo.” Among other things, the representatives of the fund were told to provide the names of the lectors who supported the production of the series, including the raw materials provided with the application for support and the amount of funding that was ultimately given to the project. A source familiar with the details says the demand to provide information on the lectors is the first stage in attaining government control of films critical of its positions.

What makes "Megiddo" so controversial? During the shooting of the series Director Itzik Lerner’s film crew spent a year and half at the huge prison, where more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners are held, documenting the tense reality there. The result is a three-part series, which reveals the complex dialogue between the prisoners and the warders, and especially between Fatah and Hamas commanders in the prison and the commanders of the prison itself. Some of the prisoners have killed Israelis; others are under administrative detention for security reasons.

A scene from 'Megiddo.'Credit: YesDocu

One of the great achievements of the film – and perhaps the source of the criticism it is receiving – is that even in the most difficult moments depicted in it, nothing is black and white. All the people in it have a face and a voice. And all of them hold suppressed anger in them. On the one hand, there are the appalling deeds of the terrorists, some of whom see themselves as freedom fighters and present a world view and a life story to which it is difficult to be impervious. On the other hand there are the prison personnel and commanders, who prove to be attentive people, conducting an open and humane dialogue with men perceived as the most dangerous of evil-doers.

Administrative detainee Abed al-Basat is one of the main characters in the film, in large part because he was head of Hamas in the prison. In a conversation with Haaretz, Basat, who has since been released, explains why he and his colleagues chose to cooperate with Lerner, an Israeli filmmaker who served in the Israel Defense Forces. “Inside the prison, the Hamas prisoners maintain the position that they do not cooperate with the Israeli media because they always distort the things we say,” he says. “What we wanted to achieve this time was to show a somewhat different picture, so people would understand the angle of human rights and prisoners’ rights.”

For example, he relates, he fought for two and a half years to receive a chart of the food prisoners are entitled to receive. “I did not succeed in obtaining it. They said it’s prohibited. Why? After all, it is a prisoner’s basic right to know what he is allowed and what he isn’t allowed to get to eat.”

What would you want a Jewish and Israeli viewer to think after he watches the series?

“That we are human beings and we have a right to independence. You talk about yourselves as the only democracy in the Middle East or the middle of the forest or the jungle,” he laughs, “but we wanted to say that we too have a life and children and you don’t need to see us as terrorists. We are freedom fighters. You too had periods of struggle with the British Mandate, and you had violent resistance. The Arabs, too, fought against the British in that same period. This is quite an amazing paradox that should be remembered. We are fighting for our liberty, and in every war there is violence. Even if you don’t want it, that is the situation. I hope that despite everything we will be able to preserve our humanity.”

A scene from 'Megiddo.'Credit: YesDocu

He relates that in the prison, the prisoners are allowed to watch only Israeli television Channels 2 and 10, and one channel from abroad that broadcasts only films and series. “When they make me watch Israeli news, this is a problem because a situation develops in which I have no connection with my own society. The newspapers they brought us were also only Israeli newspapers. With respect to internal Israeli matters, your media are pretty objective but when it concerns Palestinians you don’t really succeed in being objective. I know that there are differences between the newspapers Yisrael Hayom and Haaretz but even you, as a reporter, won’t be able to define me as a freedom fighter – because you are an Israeli. I will not agree to a definition of us as murderers or terror activists. We have different positions on this issue.”

Gaining the prisoners’ trust

Guy Lavie, the director of the YesDocu channel and the person who commissioned the series for broadcast, with the support of the New Fund for Cinema and TV, relates that even before the series went on the air its makers were bombarded on the social media with posts by people who opposed the series, which gives center stage to Hamas prisoners. “People asked us why we were even giving them a platform. All of it was accompanied of course by a stream of curses and invective. The picture we bring is a whole picture, if not one that is easy to digest. Looking away from what is happening on the ground isn’t going to change the reality. It is hard for a lot of people to look at these men, who kill us, but if we don’t get to know them and we don’t dismantle those demons, we will not understand what we are facing,” he says.

“Itzik’s camera,” he adds, “isn’t a journalistic camera but rather a documentary camera. Lerner doesn’t ask a prisoner who was involved in shooting at settlers whether he sees himself as a terrorist or as a freedom fighter. And he doesn’t ask the commander of the prison whether he thinks it is right to give the prisoners LCD televisions. This is also the power of documentary television – it deals with people and not slogans.”

Lerner received authorization to film inside the prison, which is located in the Jezreel Valley, after many years of trying. He was given the green light in 2013 by Prison Service director Brig. Gen. Aharon Franco and the Prison Service spokeswoman at the time, Sivan Weitzman, who recognized that such a series had the potential to be of benefit to the Prison Service. The beginning was difficult. Lerner wanted to gain the prisoners’ trust but they were not about to open up to him easily.

“I realized that in order to gain access to the prisoners, I would have to go to their leader and win his trust,” relates Lerner. “I got to Abed al-Basat and he made it happen for me. We clicked with each other. I felt that I could work the way I like to work, without limitations.”

The Megiddo prison.Credit: Itzik Ben Malki

The director makes it clear that this was not a simple task. “He checked me out and wanted to know what I had done before this series. I was a bit leery that he had found out that my last film was about settlers but the unmediated meeting one-on-one did the job. They kept asking me where I was coming from and for whom I had voted and I didn’t try to whitewash anything. I was myself. I am not a fervent left-winger and I don’t think the State of Israel can conduct itself according to the codes of B’Tselem,” he says, referring to The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. “Absolutely not. And on the other hand, I’m a person who believes in the middle path. And I told them this.”

Lerner also filmed three raids into the prison by the elite unit of the Prison Service, Massada. “I showed up at 2:30 A.M., alone. I didn’t want to come with a crew, so that I could fade into the background and not stand out. I didn’t know how the prisoners would take this, because they saw that I was on the side of the Prison Service with my camera but I defined to myself that I wanted to be on both sides. To be ambivalent. To show these two worlds that share a single fate. Like gears that spin inside one another. In the end, the prisoners too understood me and weren’t angry at me for documenting these raids by the warders.”

The prisoners are so humiliated in these raids. The prison service forces hold rifles to their heads, lower them to their knees and bind their hands. How did you feel while filming all that?

“The truth is that for me too it was difficult to be present during those raids. When I went back to the materials to edit them, I realized that they weren’t at all uncomplicated.”

When asked if he found himself identifying with the security prisoners at such moments, Lerner aptly invoked the Rashomon principle that guides him. “You take a side but with the prison staff, too, I tried my own way to reflect and illuminate the reality and I hope the viewer will see this and understand this without unnecessary manipulations.”

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