'Fauda,' Thriller Picked Up by Netflix, Blurs the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

Critically acclaimed Israeli drama 'Fauda' focuses on undercover soldiers hunting an arch-terrorist on Palestinian territory – where they discover they have internalized the local culture.

A scene from 'Fauda.'
Haim Yafim / Yes

One reason the Israeli television series “Fauda,” a political thriller, is a local and international success is that it tells two totally opposite stories. Above all, however, it’s about a society that is living not only the traumas of its past but also the catastrophic events of the future. The protagonists, members of the Israeli army’s Arab-speaking counter-terrorism unit – an undercover group known as mistaravim in Hebrew – are out to prevent those events from occurring. In the face of the time that has been wrenched from its orbit and suspended between the traumas of the past and those of the future, the series, whose name means “chaos” in English, creates a fantasy of total unity between country, people, army and family, all of which seem to be welded together.

Seemingly, the series speaks in the name of MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi), who knows for a fact that 20 years down the line the Arab infant who is now lying next to his son in the hospital’s nursery will pose a threat to the young man’s life. It’s against that future threat that the show coalesces, depicting perfect soldiers who are “the sons of us all.”

But “Fauda,” now available on Netflix, has drawn so many viewers and so much critical acclaim for completely opposite reasons as well. It has also deconstructed Israeli collectivity and put a dent in the pure national unity that consolidates it against the Palestinian-Arab enemy, while at the same time challenging the imagined unity of Palestinian society and the continuum of traumas along which the two societies move. In episode after episode, the series searches for a different type of relationship between the individual and the communal, and for a possibility of a different future that is not engendered by the series of traumas.

The series’ two conflicting stories are told in two different languages. On the one hand, the plot portrays, in the language of action and military operations, a special Israel Defense Forces unit that is relentlessly and courageously hunting an arch-terrorist who is planning a mega-attack on Israeli civilians. On the other hand, the aesthetics of TV language – dialogues, camera movements, acting, settings – tell a different story: This one is about undercover soldiers who, determined to capture the wanted terrorist, leave Israel proper and enter Palestinian territory, where they find that they have internalized Palestinian culture in themselves.

Thus, even as they fulfill a national mission, they are effectively outside their nationhood and commingling with the identity they are seeking to eradicate. They speak in Arabic, sing in Arabic, and Arabic penetrates their private lives and even their love life.

But in the course of “Fauda,” it becomes clear that it’s not only the Arabs who are threatening the homogeneous Israeli identity that these soldiers are defending. It emerges already at the beginning that their identity is composed of a host of cultures and identities that are not distinct from one another – indeed, each of them subsumes the others: i.e., identities related to gender, family, social class, universal human traits. Moreover, they dismantle both Jewish society and Arab society alike.

The result is that, while the series’ plot relates Israel’s historic-national story and hegemonic Zionist narrative that coalesce in the face of Palestinian nationalism, it allows for other stories to be imagined as well, as a counterpoint to that story and that plot. Stories about a community in which individuals are not welded into the commonalty and do not forge a common life experience, but are engaged in the process, unfinished and ongoing, of living together without forgoing their own distinctive individual identity.

In one episode, Amal, whose husband was killed by the undercover soldiers on their wedding day, arrives at a nightclub in Tel Aviv to perpetrate a revenge attack. That’s the story, that’s the plot, and indeed, at the end of the scene she will execute her mission. But between these two key moments in the plot – the entrance into the club and the explosion – time is fraught with tension and anticipation. And during that time, the series conveys to us – by means of the dialogue, the acting, the looks in the eyes, the tone of speech, the music and the silences – a different story.

Amal is sitting at the bar with a bomb in her bag. The woman tending the bar asks if she wants a drink, looks at her, sees that she is distraught and asks, softly, “What happened? Did someone do something to you?” Amal cries, her eyes lowered. “Is there someone you want to call?” the bartender asks, offering her water. The conversation creates some sort of connection, almost wordlessly, between the two. This makes it difficult for Amal to carry out her orders: to leave the bomb and go to the car waiting for her outside. She looks around, head lowered, eyes darting about. The editing cuts between her and the car outside. The raucous music of the club covers her silence, and the contrast between outer noise and inner silence heightens the horror.

Amal doesn’t look at the bartender, but for a moment, as the camera moves in toward her, she lifts her head, still not looking; the camera, from her vantage point, sees the other woman at the bar relaxed and smiling. There is no eye contact between the two, but that moment when Amal, with the camera’s mediation, does look at the bartender is the moment at which she makes her decision: Amal remains in the club and is blown up with her, instead of escaping as planned.

The cast of 'Fauda' Season 1.

Moment of bonding and murder

This is seemingly an encounter between terrorist and victim, two representatives of two peoples locked in a struggle against each other; but beyond this, it is an encounter between two women who for a fleeting moment saw each other and forged a certain intimacy, giving rise to an imaginary possibility of crossing the lines, which is obviated by the blast. The moment of bonding was also the moment of murder.

Those two moments, of bonding and enmity, also exist in the relations between men on either side. Here, too, the blurring of emotions and identities is nourished by the tension between the plot and the visual elements that contradict it. The interrogation scene in which Captain Ayub, the head of a branch of the Shin Bet security service, tries to get Ali, the friend of the wanted man Abu Ahmad, to talk, is harsh and cruel. Ali is urged to betray his friend in return for help that could save his daughter’s life.

But the cruelty of the interrogation is neutralized for moments, and the distance between interrogator and interrogee is narrowed by the dialogue and the acting, the voice and the gaze, and the movement of the camera, which does not allow the viewer to remain on one side or in one place.

As the scene opens, the camera is focused on Ayub’s back, concealing Ali. The two, each representing his people and identifying with it, seem to be totally erased, nonexistent: One is in fact not visible, the other’s back is to the camera. Subsequently, when Ayub offers Ali a cigarette, the camera is positioned opposite the latter, closes in on him and picks up a glance of identification on his face. Through his gaze, the viewer is capable of looking at the Palestinian and identifying with him. Against the background of the conversation between them, the camera moves back and forth between the face of the interrogator and that of the interrogee.

From the latter’s viewpoint, with the camera focusing on his face, parts of the interrogator’s monologue, spoken in a particularly soft voice, are picked up: “I have five children, may God protect them, and I promise you that if one of them were in Nadia’s condition, I would move heaven and earth for him, I would do everything, but everything, I would slaughter the world for my daughter, I would sacrifice my life for her without a second thought.”

Ali’s words are credible, because the viewer knows, from what he’s learned about his relations with his son, that what he says is true. Although Ali does not respond verbally, he takes part in the conversation with his gaze and his point of view, and through them Ayub's words assume additional significance, because they refer both to Ali and to his children. Thus, without losing the identify of captor and captive, the two momentarily discover their other identity. They are both family men, parents for whom their children’s lives take precedence over all else.

The interrogation loses none of its cruelty, however. The victim will be forced to submit and reveal the name of his friend and thereby endanger his own life. Still, identification between the two men is created even though they are enemies. For a moment, two people from two mutually hostile collectivities are discovered to belong to the same community of fathers and family men.

According to the perception of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, each of these men, though he has merged completely into the nation he represents, is also cruising between different groups and communities. Each remains integrated into the community to which he belongs, but at the same time also belongs to another community, to which he draws briefly closer before moving away, in accordance with the rhythm of the conversation and the movements of the camera. These two people move simultaneously together and individually in the same unceasing movement between their physical position and identities – which jolts the viewer, too. At the end of the scene, each returns to his place, his nation and his identity. The moment that was created has passed, though it lingers in the air.

The plot of “Fauda” is about two nations confronting each other in a life-or-death struggle, but in its television language it depicts a collection of simultaneous possibilities that create a society in which the individual has not melded into the many or been assimilated into them, but lives alongside them. It is perhaps difficult to discover that society in the plot of the series, just as it’s difficult to discover it in the reality in which Israelis and Palestinians live at present, but it’s signified here and dramatized in a kind of laboratory experiment as an option that might be realized in the future.

Nurith Gertz, a writer and professor emerita of literature and film at Israel's Open University, is currently teaching at Sapir Academic College. Her most recent book, about the life of the poetess Rachel, is called "An Ocean Between Us."