Opinion

The Hunting of 'Jenin Jenin': A Never-ending Story

In my film, I tried to give a platform to the camp residents who had no voice. I didn’t know I would spend the next 14 years defending myself in court, my family from death threats and my reputation from an ongoing media and political lynching.

2002 | Jenin, Palestinians walk by the rubble of a building destroyed in an Israel Defense Forces attack when the second intifada was at its peak.
Pavel Wohlberg

Background note: After several screenings, Mohammad Bakri’s 2002 film, ‘Jenin Jenin’, whose subject was that year’s battle between IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants in the eponymous West Bank refugee camp, was banned by the Israeli Film Ratings Board on the basis it was libelous and might offend the public. The Supreme Court overturned the decision. On appeal, the ruling was stayed, but in August 2004 the Supreme Court reaffirmed the overturning of the ban. Concurrently, five Israeli reserve soldiers who served in Jenin filed suit in 2002 against Bakri for defamation. In 2008 the Petah Tikva District Court ruled that Bakri had indeed slandered Israeli soldiers, but the plaintiffs were not personally slandered and thus had no basis for a suit. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in July 2011. In 2012 the attorney general decided against filing criminal charges against Bakri. A month ago, a soldier who fought in the Jenin battle filed suit for defamation in the Lod court against Bakri asking for 2.6 million shekels in damages and for screenings of the film to be banned.

Dear Human Dignity,

I won’t weary you with all the details about the heavy burden that I’ve been carrying for many years. As the saying goes: “To each his own burden.” But I feel that it is my moral, human and historic duty to give you just a taste of my reality.

I never pretended to be a director of documentary films. That’s not my field. I’m just an actor. I didn’t choose to direct documentaries, but sometimes you get find yourself in certain situations where reality impels you, and your human dignity obliges you, to respond.

Some examples: My first documentary was “1948.” I produced it in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding. My desire to make the film arose after I watched the series “Tekuma,” which was broadcast on Channel 1 to mark Israel’s 50th birthday and offers an account exclusively from the Israeli point of view. It astounded me, and spurred a desire to tell the same story from my point of view as a Palestinian who grew up here and heard two totally different stories, the Zionist Israeli story from the Israeli Jewish establishment, and the Palestinian story from my father and grandparents who experienced the Nakba.

Nearly the same thing occurred with my film “Jenin Jenin,” when I went into that refugee camp to learn and bring out the other truth that wasn’t being told in the Israeli media or on the television news. I tried to give expression to the outcry of the people in the camp who have lived for decades under Israeli occupation, who endured a massive military offensive involving thousands of soldiers with tanks, artillery, planes and bulldozers that destroyed large parts of the camp (as a bulldozer driver quoted in a report in Yediot Ahronoth said: “I cleared [an area the size of] Teddy Stadium there”).

In the film, I sought to give a platform to the residents of the camp who were battered by the shock of the war, the trauma of bereavement and the loss of their own truth. I didn’t like the Israeli truth that claimed the military operation called ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ was a consequence of the terrible terror attacks that erupted with the outbreak of the second intifada, that itself began in the wake of Sharon’s provocative visit to the Temple Mount – Al Aqsa, the holiest place for Muslims. It was the intifada that took the lives of hundreds of Arabs and Jews, including 13 Palestinian-Israeli youths.

I tried to give a platform to the camp residents who have no voice. I tried to make a restrained and true film. I did not use shocking images of blood and bodies, to make it easier on the viewer; so the film would speak to the heart of every person, and especially to Israelis, with whom I live and on whom I pin my hopes that together we can change reality.

I never anticipated the crude and savage attacks on me and the film. I was called a murderer, a liar, a hater of Jews, an anti-Semite, a terrorist. The film was described as being all lies and manipulation. People claimed that I distorted the truth. There were calls in the Knesset to boycott me.

And along with the media lynching, I received hundreds of threatening letters directed at me and my family. They incited against me and called for my blood. MKs and ministers openly boycotted me. They prevented me from even appearing in a public service announcement about cancer awareness, a campaign I had filmed on a volunteer basis for the Israeli national health maintenance organizations; it was pulled due to pressure from investors who threatened to withdraw their support if a photo of Mohammad Bakri appeared in the campaign.

For 14 years now, I’ve run to court to defend myself from libel cases brought in the media and from some soldiers who allege that I libeled them in my film “Jenin Jenin.” At least three films have been made in Israel in response to “Jenin Jenin” and all have been shown on Israeli television: “Jenin, War Diary”; “The Road to Jenin” and “Jenin: Massacring Truth.” I did not sue the directors who libeled me and sought to prove me a liar. Now, all of a sudden, 14 years later, another army officer pops up and remembers to sue me for defamation! The same lawsuit that was filed a few years ago by five soldiers who lost their case in court.

I ask you, brother Human Dignity: Who should be suing whom?

Mohammad Bakri is an actor and film director.