MIAMI BEACH – Shlomi Eldar hasn’t visited the Gaza Strip since the Hamas coup there in 2007, but when he arrived at the Miami Film Festival earlier this month with his new documentary, “Foreign Land,” a surprise awaited him. An old friend of his wife’s, who’s lived in the city for two decades, invited the couple for dinner at the home of relatives of hers, Jacob and Helen Shaham.
Almost 40 years ago, the Shahams founded a chain of assisted living communities (the Palace Group), and they became very wealthy. Like many Israelis who immigrated to America, they recite the blessings over red wine and challah every Friday evening, “so the children will know who they are.” A regular Sabbath-eve guest is Mussa Salah, who is in charge of the kitchens and almost everything relating to personnel in the Shahams’ company. Eldar knows Salah’s brother well: He’s Ahmed Yousef, a longtime member of Hamas’ political bureau, and a former senior adviser to the organization’s ex-prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh.
The unreal setting – the Shahams’ gilded home, all but buckling under an overload of luxury – only heightened the symbolism of what is already a moment of potential kitsch. When Palestinian dishes prepared by Salah himself were served, at the hosts’ request, Eldar launched into a brief talk. “Ahmed Yousef worked for years with another senior Hamas figure, Mousa Abu Marzook, established Hamas’ political bureau and also raised funds for the organization. When Ismail Haniyeh became prime minister, he asked Ahmed Yousef to abandon his career as a researcher in the United States and serve as his policy adviser in Gaza,” Eldar said.
'The Israeli public had lost the hope for peace and that the Palestinians’ plight no longer interested them. They didn’t want to see them as human beings anymore.'
“I first met him in Gaza,” he continued. “I think Haniyeh wanted someone with broad horizons, a man of the world. Because Haniyeh’s intention was not only to be the prime minister of Gaza but to breach the borders. As we know, that didn’t happen. What did happen, is that in 2007, after Hamas staged its violent coup in Gaza and Israel closed the crossing points, Ahmed Yousef and Razi Hamad, who was Haniyeh’s spokesman, apparently met with Israeli representatives at the Erez crossing, and news of the meeting got out. Hamas’ military wing demanded that Haniyeh remove Yousef and Hamad from Hamas’ center of control in Gaza, and he did so.”
Mussa Salah confirmed the details, adding that his brother had been very close to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, one of the founders of Hamas, and that Yassin had been a frequent visitor in the family home. "Because he has been living in America for many years, he doesn't get along with Hamas today," he noted.
"He left me a message three years ago, and I didn't return his call. You probably know why," Eldar told Salah, who replied, "Yes, I know." Later, Eldar explained he didn't call because he was afraid of wiretapping.
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This was the second time Eldar had participated in the Miami Film Festival. His previous movie, “Precious Life” – about the efforts of an Israeli hospital to save the life of a Palestinian infant who was suffering from a rare genetic syndrome and needed a bone-marrow transplant – was widely acclaimed and won the Israel Film Academy’s prize for best documentary in 2010. The new film, he explains, is completely different, far more personal.
“Foreign Land” was made after Eldar emigrated to the United States with his family in 2013 and began to observe Israel from afar. The film’s editor, Halil Efrat, used shots of the large bay window in Eldar’s Maryland home, superimposing on the individual window panes TV screens on which key aspects of Israeli reality, all of them frightening and despairing, are seen. Eldar’s gaze in the documentary is reflective, melancholy, though at times gushing and overly poetic. What’s clear is that he “has no other country,” as the song goes, but at the same time his fear for Israel’s future is intensifying.
The foreign land is both America, to which he has not fully acclimatized, and Israel, which has morphed into something different from what it was, he says. The foreign land is also the Israeli-Palestinian Israel of the actor Ghassan Abbas, a star of the local television sitcom “The Big Restaurant” during the 1980s, who no longer finds his place in Jewish Tel Aviv, but also not in his hometown of Umm al-Fahm, in Galilee, to which he returned after encountering racism in the big city. In the movie, both of them describe the respective processes of alienation they underwent, and then meet in Israel and talk.
Abbas and Eldar met when the former decided to mount a one-man show based on the story of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Palestinian physician from the Gaza Strip, three of whose daughters were killed before his eyes when an Israeli tank shell struck their home in Jabaliya during Operation Cast Lead in 2009. The film opens with the moment – enshrined in the annals of Israeli television – when Abuelaish called Eldar, then the Arab affairs correspondent for Channel 10, in the midst of a live broadcast, and shouted that his daughters, as well as a niece, lay dead in front of him. Another daughter and niece were also wounded, and they were in immediate need of critical care. Eldar put him on speaker, and viewers experienced first-hand the physician’s tragedy as it unfolded.
Abuelaish and Eldar had already known each other, but from that moment their fates were inextricably entwined. Eldar admits to being a highly emotional person, but emphasizes that during that broadcast he made a point of not bursting into tears.
“I cry at a Van Morrison song, and every time I talk to my father,” he says. “But at that moment I wanted to save what remained of his family. I understood that a broadcast like this would force the army to open the Erez checkpoint in order to get him out of there. So maybe they [the wounded girls] are alive thanks to the second when I answered the phone and decided to put him on speaker.”
Many others were wounded and died in Gaza, and no one opened the checkpoint for them.
“Of course. The next day Haaretz ran a cartoon of a family whose home was demolished, and the wife says to the husband, ‘Call Shlomi Eldar.’ On the day that Abuelaish’s family was killed, a mother and her five children were also killed in Khan Yunis. No one heard about them.”
Years later, he relates, Abuelaish told him that he felt he had destroyed Eldar’s career. “He said, ‘I knew that from that moment Israeli viewers would always look at you as an Arab lover.’ I told him that I was a little angry at him, because from that instant all my journalistic work was wiped out. The only thing people remember about me is that moment.”
(Today, Abuelaish, a widower, lives in Canada with his five surviving children, and is a professor at the University of Toronto’s school of public health.)
Nevertheless, Eldar’s TV career lasted three more years, until November 2012, when he decided to leave Channel 10. He felt that something had changed, he recalls, and that what he wanted to convey was not what the Israeli public wanted to hear.
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“My sense was that the Israeli public had lost the hope for peace and that the Palestinians’ plight no longer interested them. They didn’t want to see them as human beings anymore, because they’d internalized the assertion that ‘there is no partner.’ I felt that my reports were gradually being moved to the fringes of the newscast – that my status on the editorial staff was deteriorating. I arrived at the realization that I could no longer exert influence or persuade. I was also no longer able to enter the Gaza Strip [following the Hamas takeover], so everything was being done by remote.”
The breaking point came after he’d done a report about the flourishing of a market for mules in Gaza, because of the shortage of gasoline for cars. “No one wanted to hear about people in Gaza dying because the hospitals had no electric power. You could only show curiosities. I felt that after 20 years in the profession, I was no longer willing to do that.”
Outside the world of being a daily reporter, things went pretty well for Eldar. His first film was a worldwide success, and was screened at numerous festivals, and he accompanied it to a host of countries. His Hebrew-language book “Getting to Know Hamas” also made waves. Eldar decided that he wanted to make a documentary series about society in Israel, left Channel 10 and pitched his idea to Reshet. The Channel 2 franchisee accepted happily and the sides were about to sign a contract for five episodes.
The series was to open with a critical moment in Eldar’s career, from 1997. “I was 20 centimeters from the ear of Rabbi [Yitzhak] Kedouri when [Prime Minister] Netanyahu whispered to him, ‘The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.’ I was then a political correspondent for Channel 1. Kedouri was 92. It’s not clear whether he even heard Netanyahu or understood who it was that was standing next to him. That was the point at which I discerned that Netanyahu was promoting incitement and factionalism in the Israeli society. That was the point at which I wanted to open the series, because since then he has divided my nation. You can argue about his policy, but what he’s done to Israeli society is undeniable.”
Although a broadcast date had already been set, the series somehow never got off the ground; Reshet backed off. Eldar thinks it might have taken fright at his critical stance. For example, he referred in the series to the vast sums of money being spent on roads and other basic infrastructure for the settlements, in contrast to the neglect of peripheral locales within sovereign Israel. At around the same time, in 2012, Eldar received a research grant from the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a Washington-based federal think tank, to do research on Hamas.
How do you do that from afar, without entering Gaza?
“Through newspapers, conversations, books. I am an Arab affairs commentator for Al-Monitor [an English-language site about Middle Eastern news], I read a lot and I am able to identify processes. It was the same with the book I wrote in 2012, five years after the coup, when I was not able to enter Gaza. I did send people there to conduct interviews for me. But I knew that in order to know Hamas, I mainly had to talk to decision makers in Israel, because in most cases, Hamas reacted to processes in Israel.”
'I started to teach American Jews what it means to love Israel. That you can be critical of the place you live in, out of love.'
‘No hope’ for peace
Shlomi Eldar was born in Herzliya in 1958, the youngest of four siblings. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Corps, he did an undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies and political science at Tel Aviv University. In 1990, he was accepted to an Israel Television course for reporters. One of his reports as ITV’s education correspondent embarrassed the education minister at the time, Zevulun Hammer, he relates, and Hammer demanded his dismissal. Instead, he was reassigned as the correspondent in the south – which is how he started reporting on the Gaza Strip.
He eventually held a range of positions in ITV, among them editing the daily prime-time newscast and the weekly newsmagazine. At the same time, he obtained a master’s degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writing a thesis on the role of security prisoners in the peace process with Israel, based on an analysis of notebooks written by prisoners in jail. “I argued that the peace process began in the prisons, when the psychological barriers between the Israeli warders and the Palestinian prisoners were breached,” he says. “Both groups started to view the other side as human beings.”
A 2002 report he did on the Erez checkpoint between Israel and Gaza led to a clash with his superiors.
“I thought the second intifada wasn’t being covered properly, that it was necessary to show the other side, too,” Eldar recalls. “In a report on the Erez crossing, I showed the Palestinians waiting there the whole night and being squeezed by the barrier. The director general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority at the time, Yosef Barel, called me after [Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon had spoken to him about the report. Barel told me, ‘Read the Nakdi document [referring to ethical guidelines for the Israeli broadcast industry] carefully, from now on you’re not allowed to talk to Palestinians. Bye, pal’ – and he hung up.”
What did he mean?
“That the report was supposedly not balanced. In an interview Barel gave a few months later, he said that there wasn’t one Palestinian whom Shlomi Eldar hadn’t interviewed, and that he was considering bringing in people from Egypt for me.”
In late 2002, Eldar received an offer to join Israel’s second commercial television station, Channel 10, which was then being established, and be responsible for covering the Strip. On the first day he reported from there, there was an IDF operation to destroy lathes.
“The IDF didn’t know how to cope with the problem of the Qassam rockets, so they decided to fight the lathe workshops, claiming they were producing the casings for the Qassams. That was idiotic I showed that the IDF had taken on something it didn’t know how to cope with,” Eldar says.”
What are the implications of the fact that you and your style of reporting are being marginalized, while the current Channel 10 Arab affairs correspondent, Zvi Yehezkeli, with his very different style, is flourishing and popular?
“Channel 10 explicitly preferred the voice of Zvi Yehezkeli, because that’s what the public wants to hear. He’s a true professional and knows television, and he’s articulate and knows how to present himself to the camera.”
How would you describe the ‘voice of Zvi Yehezkeli’?
“The Israeli media bought the narrative of Netanyahu that there is no partner for making peace. There was a fruitful network of cooperation with Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], but the Israel public didn’t hear about it, because for Netanyahu it was convenient to tell the Israelis that Abu Mazen was inciting to terror, and that’s the narrative that was chosen. The Channel 10 editors also lent a hand to that. It was convenient for them to say that the Palestinians are peace rejectionists. After Operation Protective Edge [in Gaza, in 2014], Hamas wanted to enter into a long hudna [cease-fire] and arrive at decisive understandings, but Israel rejected the proposals, because you can’t make an agreement in Gaza when you don’t want to make an agreement in the West Bank and when a West Bank agreement carries a price: the toppling of the [Israeli] government.”
He himself, Eldar says, did not intend to fight for his place. “After ‘Precious Life,’ I was a star. So I decided that my being a correspondent on Channel 10 in that period was of no interest either to me or the Israeli public, and that I wanted to do other things. So instead of all that I spent what was a fascinating time for me in the United States, doing the rounds of research institutes and making another film.”
Do you think that the media demonizes the Palestinians?
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“I definitely think that Abu Mazen is a dictator. Look what he did to his opponents – he removed them all and some of them are in prison. You can’t say a word against him. But I regret that in all of my whole journalistic work, whenever the topic of Palestinian corruption came up, I would say, ‘It’s their business, let them deal with it.’ I didn’t know that Palestinian corruption would also have political implications, because Hamas was elected in the wake of the corruption of [Yasser] Arafat and his cohorts. It was my strategic mistake as a journalist that I didn’t understand the impact that corruption would have on the election of Hamas.”
Do you think there’s still a chance of achieving a political agreement with the Palestinians?
“I have no hope. Everyone understands today that there will not be peace. The two-state solution can’t happen, because facts have been created on the ground. I don’t see Netanyahu or his successor being able to remove 400,000 settlers and bringing them back within the pre-1967 lines. Both sides have grown extreme. I am against the partition of Jerusalem. I don’t see the Palestinians being successful at ruling over part of Jerusalem.”
You say you were taught on Channel 1 to stay behind the camera, but your new film is very personal and speaks in the first person.
“Yes, I was taken through a process. For the Americans this is a very Israeli story, in contrast to ‘Precious Life,’ which was universal. The new film is painful, personal and sensitive, and it will touch Israelis more than it will touch Americans. Here I knew that the process is not mine and not Ghassan’s, but that of the state. Ghassan and Abuelaish and I are in the same place that we were in, and the radicalization process is taking place in the Israeli society. Americans don’t know who [Culture Minister] Miri Regev is, and they can’t understand how it is that Miri Regev can stifle culture in Israel, because here culture is a private matter, not public. Maybe they’ll understand that we are people who are talking about loss, loss of a place that we think can be a lot better for all of us.”
Since the movie was acquired by the new public broadcasting corporation Kan (it was broadcast on March 21), it might have been suspected of not being controversial enough. But then Culture Minister Regev went into action and did the film the same favor she’s done for quite a few films and other works lately, by labeling it anti-patriotic. Eldar notes that he also recognized and remembers the moment that journalists began to be depicted as the enemies of the state.
“As a diplomatic correspondent, I found myself with Netanyahu and [his wife] Sara alone in the Prime Minister’s Office after he lost the 1999 election, when all the reporters who a moment before were surrounding him now rushed off to interview Ehud Barak [who won the election]. It was a heartrending moment. I told him that I wanted to apologize to him, for having asked him two years earlier, in the presence of Jordan’s King Hussein, about the investigation of the Amedi affair [referring to gifts Netanyahu had received as prime minister which he took home], in front of TV cameras from around the world. I told him I thought I hadn’t acted properly.
“Netanyahu replied, ‘You [journalists] were never fair to me.’ I think that was the moment that his obsession with the media sprouted. He decided that from then on he would control the media so that the media would be fair to him. I saw him in his ‘They are afraid’ period [a referrence to his 1999 speech] and in the period when he was ready to incite against everything. Three days before the  election, he held a press conference and invited professional cheerers for Likud to the Prime Minister’s Office. I think that was the first time he crossed the boundary lines – and that was child’s play compared to what’s happening now.”
Eldar describes himself as being on the side of the losers now. But despite this pessimistic outlook, he and his wife, the playwright and journalist Michal Aharoni, and their two young children (Eldar has three adult children from his first marriage), are planning to return to Israel in a few months.
In light of all you’ve said, how can you come back?
“Because it’s mine, after all.”
So you prefer to go down with the ship?
“I have two choices – to become an American citizen, but to always be an immigrant who’s not fluent in the language, like many Israelis who after 40 years here still ‘live’ Israel – or to return home, to a reality that has already been forged and which will be very difficult to change. Peace there won’t be; I am a realist. But it would be desirable for Israel to be a more empathetic place, with less hatred. Hatred that I know who’s responsible for and where it began. To save his skin, Netanyahu is ready to trample the police and the whole world. One day a journalist will be assassinated in the name of the prime minister, as Arye Golan [veteran Kan radio newsman] said this month against the background of the incitement against journalists. People who think differently from Miri Regev, from Netanyahu and from [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett have their Israeliness called into doubt. It’s very easy to be considered a traitor.”
A hard choice, then.
“With all my anger and pessimism, Israel is my home, my language and my culture, and maybe there are a few more people who will want to listen to me. When I give talks here, I sometimes find myself defending things I don’t really believe in. I started to teach American Jews what it means to love Israel. That you can be critical of the place you live in, out of love. I was astounded at how little Jews here know about Israel. I learned that in another generation in America, there will no longer be a Jewish pro-Israel lobby. On the other hand, there will be a very broad American public that will remind Israel that it was taken in thrall by this very controversial president, Trump.”