July 22, 2014
July 15, 2014
June 6, 2014
Counterpunch Weekend Edition June 6-8, 2014
A Ravaged Screenplay
If you’ve been monitoring Israeli film over the past ten years or so, you will be aware that there is an ongoing effort to promote the reputation of the government through subterfuge. Since the days of outright propaganda are long past, what you see more and more are films that stress reconciliation with the Palestinians in the old-fashioned Hollywood liberal mould found in something like “The Defiant Ones”, a film that starred Tony Curtis as a southern white racist (a most unlikely role for a Brooklyn Jew) and African-American actor Sidney Poitier, who was so frequently cast as the long-suffering symbol of a race that needed to be integrated into American society.
Last week I heard from screenwriter Nader Rizq, who had a startling revelation about changes made to his screenplay in violation of his integrity as an artist and spokesman for his people’s rights. Rizq told me that my assessment of “the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers” was right on the money and advised me to look at the website he created to show what the Israeli producers had done to his film: www.zaytounthemovie.com.
I strongly urge you to go to Rizq’s website and read the entire sad story for yourself but do want to include a key section:
As financing fell into place and pre-production began toward the end of 2011 however, troubling hints of censorship started to appear.
First it was a request to alter a scene that showed the effects of Israeli phosphorus and cluster bombing on the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut.
The scene had been in the script for years and demonstrated how phosphorus shrapnel continues to burn inside the body of its victim for days. The only recourse is to keep the wound soaked in water, a resource particularly scarce in war time. Also illustrated was how cluster bombs kill and maim.
Read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/06/06/the-story-behind-zaytoun/
June 5, 2014
May 22, 2014
At this point any young independent filmmaker looking for funding would probably be advised to work with a screenplay that reflected what was fashionable in film festivals. Mumblecore with its deadpan fixation on the petty affairs of bored white middle-class youths is the most marketable genre, with “dark” narratives about sexual obsessions a close runner-up.
Given the market realities, it was extraordinary to see a film like “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” today that opens tomorrow, May 23rd, at the IFC in New York. As is the case with a number of indie films being made today, seed money came from Kickstarter ($35,000) rather than Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank. What is even more extraordinary was its defiant embrace of humanist values, a throwback to the golden age of film in the late 50s and early 60s when Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray saw fit to make films about society’s underdogs.
“Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is about the two days spent in New York’s subways by a mildly autistic 13-year-old named Ricky from the poorer section of Rockaways whose Mexican immigrant mother cleans apartments for a living. The fact that the director and co-writers of the marvelous screenplay attended film school, including the dreaded NYU, indicates that there is hope for independent film.
The film begins just a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, with the most devastating damage to the Rockaways. (I made a 10 minute documentary a few days after the storm ended that you can watch here: https://vimeo.com/53102549.) When Ricky’s older sister fails to escort him home from school, he decides to take off on the subway—destination unknown. Problems at school and at home probably was a factor in his running off but as with the case of most autistic children, motivation is difficult to ascertain.
For those who live in New York or follow news stories there, the plot will obviously resonate with recent events. Last year Avonte Oquendo, an austistic 14-year-old wandered off from a special education school in Queens. His remains turned up in the East River a couple of months later. More recently, another autistic Latino 14-year-old wandered off as well, this time fortunately discovered after three days. But as it turns out director Sam Fleischner got the idea for the film in 2010 when previous such incidents had occurred. One can only conclude that cutbacks in health services have made such “accidents” possible.
The film cuts back and forth from Ricky’s mother trying desperately to find her son with the assistance of a Jamaican shoe-store owner who had grown used to the boy spending time in her store gazing at the sneakers. As is the case with many autistic children apparently, they become fixated on certain objects.
But most of the film consists of slices of life from New York’s subways: break dancers on a subway car with a captive audience (a scene I know only too well), people exchanging small talk on their way to and from work, mothers tending to their young, panhandlers, street preachers—in other words, a world onto itself. Director Sam Fleischner takes this material, which are commonplace to New Yorkers—at least those who take the subways—and transforms them into something quite magical, both threatening and transcendental at the same time. Although I am quite sure the young filmmakers did not have this in mind, I could not help but be reminded of “Black Orpheus”, the 1959 Brazilian film that has its musician lead character wandering through Rio De Janeiro’s slums in the dead of night in search of his beloved Eurydice.
The screenplay was co-written by Rose Lichter-Marck, who earned an MFA from Columbia University 4 years ago, and Micah Bloomberg who graduated from NYU in 2004 with a BFA.
Although the film has the look of something that had been gestating in the creative team’s minds for years, it actually verged on the improvisational, starting with the use of Sam Fleischner’s home in the Rockaways for some scenes. Considering the Hurricane Sandy element, one might conclude that the screenplay included it to ratchet up the dramatic tension. But in fact the intention was originally only to tell a story about a lost autistic child. Just by coincidence the storm hit during filming and Fleischner decided to incorporate scenes of the devastated peninsula at the conclusion.
At the risk of sounding like an establishment film critic, let me say that “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors” is a stunning achievement. It is artistically accomplished as well as a testament to the social consciousness of young independent filmmakers today who care more about dramatizing the human condition rather than fame and fortune. Let’s hope that the filmmakers do eventually enjoy fame and fortune because they certainly deserve it and this will ensure that they have the clout to open up Harvey Weinstein’s piggy bank rather than relying on Kickstarter next time.
The title of Mahdi Fleifel’s “A World Not Ours”, a powerful documentary opening at the Cinema Village on May 23rd as well, derives from a book with the same title written by PFLP leader Ghassan Kanafani who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972. We see the book toward the end of the film when its chief subject, a bitter and disillusioned Fateh militant with the nom de guerre Abu Iyad, is deciding which books to keep and which to discard. Kanafani’s makes the cut but much else ends up in a bonfire.
If there is anything good that has come out of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, it is the body of film work—both documentary and narrative—that represent engaged art at its highest level, this film ranking at the apex.
The film opens on an understated note, with director Mahdi Fleifel introducing us to his family through decades old home movies. It turns out that his father was a compulsive Super-8 guy who filmed birthdays, holidays and all the other events such cameras were meant to record. Since the Fleifels were denizens of Ain al-Hilweh, a sprawling refugee camp in Southern Lebanon, some of the footage was also about the living struggle that almost every Palestinian supported passively or actively.
Fleifel refers to David Ben-Gurion’s observation that after the old Palestinians die off, the young ones will forget. “A World Not Ours” is about as good a refutation of that as can be imagined. No matter how demoralized the denizens of Ain al-Hilweh have become, they will never relinquish the dream of regaining their homeland.
As grim as all this sounds, the film is actually a celebration of Palestinian daily life with weddings, celebration of World Cup victories (the camp dwellers adopt foreign teams in the competition, about as close as they come to identifying with a state power), raising pigeons, and hanging out on the street shooting the breeze.
Abu Iyad might seem like an exception to the rule of Palestinian national aspirations since he repeatedly refers to being conned by the likes of Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. At one point, he states that he wishes the Israelis would come and kill us all since there is no point in going on living. But in a way his nihilistic rage is a sign that the ember of the nationalist dream remains burning since someone who has given up hope entirely would probably not be given to fits of rage.
Mahdi Fleifel left Ain al-Hilweh at a young age and went with his family to Dubai where his father tried to make a living. When that hope failed, the family returned to Ain al-Hilweh for a few years more until they relocated to Denmark. Fleifel made regular trips back to Ain al-Hilweh to reconnect with Abu Iyad, his crusty grandfather who dreams of returning to Palestine, and his uncle Said who has been driven a bit mad by living as a refugee. Said’s brother Jamil was a celebrated fighter whose participation in the resistance to Israel was so celebrated that they made a comic book about him. At the age of 23, he was shot in the throat by an Israeli sniper and finally died after convalescing in a hospital for 16 months.
I urge you to read the interview with Mahdi Fleifel and his co-producer Patrick Campbell on the World Socialist Website (the only thing reliable there are the film articles). Here is an excerpt that should whet your appetite to see this stirring film. David Walsh, who sadly appears to have retired from reviewing films there, conducted the interview. I don’t admire his politics but his film mastery is obvious in everything he writes:
DW: The third personality, and in some ways the most complex, is Abu Iyad, the former Palestinian militant. His situation speaks most directly to some of the present-day difficulties.
MF: He’s very smart, he has a sixth sense. From a very young age, he became involved in intelligence work, they would send him out to sniff out this or tell them about that.
DW: His disillusionment is not simply a personal discouragement, something is at a dead end there. There is a Palestinian elite that wants to get rich. They are envious of the Saudis and others, they want to have their own country so they can exploit the population and make lots of money.
MF: Exactly. When the PLO left Lebanon in ’82, then went to Tunisia, and eventually found themselves settling back in Ramallah, everyone forgot the people in Lebanon. The expatriates, the ones who accumulated a lot of money in exile, doing whatever they did, whether it was in Tunisia or Eastern Europe, or wherever, found their way back and now they’re opening hotels and bars, and sending their kids off to study in the US.
PC: The diaspora became a bargaining chip. With the Oslo agreement in 1993, it became “I’ll give you this for that.” The “right of return”—we were just speaking about the suspended reality of the older generation—is a bargaining chip between the Palestinian elite and the Israelis, or the US, or whoever. That’s part of the reason for Abu Iyad’s disillusionment. He’s essentially been betrayed.
MF: His whole history, his sacrifices have made him feel, “Hang on, I’m genuinely interested in going all the way, and everywhere I look, I see leaders and people chickening out. My god, I’ve given everything for this. I dropped out of school, because I really believe in this, and yet no one is actually doing it. Where do I go from here?” That’s essentially how I see it.…
February 8, 2014
Reviewed in this article:
1. “Omar” – a Palestinian narrative film nominated for best foreign film at the upcoming Academy Awards.
2. “Mars at Sunrise” – an art film about the suffering and resistance of a Palestinian artist.
3. “Zaytoun” – an Israeli narrative film written by a Palestinian-American about the unlikely alliance between a captured Israeli pilot and a Palestinian boy in 1982.
4. “It’s Better to Jump” – a documentary about the Palestinians living in Akka, just north of Haifa, trying to preserve their culture in the face of a cold-blooded gentrification onslaught.
Was it a coincidence that I received invitations to review these four films over the past few weeks? It is just as likely that the same forces driving the BDS movement forward explain their appearance. Despite the absence of a powerful Palestinian movement of the kind that was seen in the various intifadas of years past, there is more sympathy for the Palestinian cause than ever before. Filmmakers make such films as a way of rallying public opinion. As I have stated in the past, film is very much an expression of an informal “vanguard” that has as much power in its way as Lenin’s Iskra.
The eponymous Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young man living in the West Bank who toils by day in a low-tech bakery making pita bread and by night plots armed resistance against the occupying IDF forces that make his life and those of his brethren miserable.
In order to visit the young woman he loves, he must each time scale the monstrous wall erected by the Israelis and risk being shot at or picked up by an IDF patrol. When he is at one point, the soldiers torment him in a way that dramatizes the brutality and the racism of the occupation better than a thousand articles. They order him to stand on top of a roadside boulder in the midday heat while they make small talk nearby. When exhaustion makes it impossible to balance himself on the top of the rock any longer, they smash a rifle butt against his face.
A few days later, Omar and two comrades draw close to an IDF outpost in the dead of night armed with a sniper’s rifle and take down a guard. Before long, Omar is arrested and put in an Israel jail where he is tortured in order to provide the names of the men who were with him. He refuses to name names.
At lunch, an older man representing himself as a member of an Islamic resistance organization joins him. He warns Omar to not divulge any information about his activities since there are spies everywhere in jail who work with the Israelis. Don’t worry, Omar tells him, I will never confess.
A day later, he is brought into the office of Rami, a top Israeli intelligence officer who turns out to be the Islamic radical he had lunch with—a guise aided by his fluency in the Arabic language. Omar is also dismayed to learn that in Israeli courts, the statement that “I will never confess” is tantamount to a confession that will result in a decades-long imprisonment. Rami tells him that the only way out is to become a snitch.
“Omar” is not only filmmaking of the highest order; it is by far the most frontal assault on Israeli savagery that I have ever seen in a movie theater. The Palestinians are caught in a spider’s web that makes their fate almost inescapable. There is a sense of futility about the attempt to free the West Bank of the occupying forces but it would be impossible for a Palestinian filmmaker like Hany Abu-Assad to represent things otherwise.
Abu-Assad’s last film was the 2005 “Paradise Now” about suicide bombers that like “Omar” mixes a sense of futility with a burning desire to overcome Zionist oppression. In an interview with the Electronic Intifada, Abu-Assad articulates the contradictory feelings of artists as an expression of the general mood of the population they speak for:
The mood among the general population and Palestinian filmmakers was [the same]. What the general population went through, we went through too. You feel angry and impotent. You feel you can’t do anything against this heartless operation going on. … I always tell the same story at festivals, but the difference is that you can be at a festival and be celebrated and you are treated as very important person, but when you go back to your homeland you are treated as non-human. I could be in Rome at a festival and be celebrated and the same day I can go back and be treated as a criminal. This contrast is amazing. The mood is the same among all Palestinians under occupation — you are the same as anyone else and are not protected.
“Omar” opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Theater in New York on February 21 and is simply not to be missed. Nationwide showtimes are here: http://www.adoptfilms.com/omar
“Mars at Sunrise” opened yesterday at the Quad in New York. Like “Omar”, its protagonist is arrested and tortured by Israeli soldiers who are trying to force him into naming names and becoming an informer. Unlike “Omar”, it is not a conventional narrative film and employs many techniques that would identify it as an experimental film.
It has a dream-like quality that utilizes the canvases of its artist lead character to create a visual and psychological canvas of Palestinian hopes and frustration. There is not a conventional plot, only a stream of vignettes that depict Palestinian experience under conditions of occupation and loss.
Jessica Habie, a Mizrahi Jew who went to NYU film school, directed the film. Her lead character is based on Palestinian artist in exile Hani Zurob who spent the late 1990s studying art at An-Najah University in Nablus as an “illegal,” constantly under threat of being discovered and deported. A visit to Zurob’s website will give you an idea of how a painter expresses the beating heart of the Palestinian people.
I also recommend a visit to the “Mars at Sunrise” website, where you will learn about the Fajr Falistine Film Collective that helped to make it possible. They describe themselves as “a group of artists who want to create experimental, absurdist and alternative narratives about the realities of life in the Middle East. We seek to find new ways to fund and share stories from the Arab world.” I would say that they have made an auspicious debut with this, their first work.
“Zaytoun” is an Israeli film that is the counterpart of Peace Now type liberalism in which Israeli and Palestinian reconciliation is based on anything except an abolition of the existing asymmetric power relationships. Not surprisingly, the film is seemingly inspired by Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” that brought together Black and white racist prison escapees who are forced to cooperate even though they would kill each other given the chance. Chained at their wrists, they are one step ahead of the law and an even smaller step ahead of sticking a knife into each other.
In “Zaytoun”, the shotgun marriage is between Fahed, a young Palestinian boy who lives in the Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon, and Yoni, an Israeli pilot whose jet has been shot down in the skies over Beirut during the chaotic civil war of 1982. Fahed dreams of visiting his ancestral village in Israel and eventually decides to help lead Yoni to the Israeli border in exchange for helping him visit his family’s long-abandoned house. He wears a key to its door around his neck during the long trek there, as well as a potted olive tree that he hopes to plant in the fields surrounding his village. The relationship between the two is strained from the outset, all the more so since Fahed’s father has been killed in an Israeli bomb strike just days earlier. Suffice it to say that the likelihood of such a pairing in real-life Lebanon in 1982 was less than zero. It is just a device of director Eran Riklis to make the kind of points he has made before in films such as the 2008 “Lemon Tree” in which goodhearted Israelis come to the aid of a Palestinian woman trying to protect her modest grove against an IDF threat to cut it down.
Despite its liberal pretensions, the film is still worth watching for its ability to tell an old-fashioned dramatic tale made all the more worthwhile by a stellar performance by Abdallah El Akal, a 15-year-old actor who lives in Tel Aviv and who has been a professional actor since the age of 7. I was surprised to discover that he was a professional since he comes across as exactly the same sort of person who he plays, a street urchin scrambling to survive.
The film is also probably made more tolerable because the screenwriter Nader Rizq is Palestinian and manages to convey some of the realities of his people despite the overarching liberal Zionist agenda of its director and producers.
Strand Releasing informed me that this film that premiered in New York last September would be available as a DVD on February 18th. Look for it in the usual places like Netflix and Amazon.com. You can also purchase it from the Strand website for $20.99.
Finally, there is a truly remarkable documentary titled “It’s Better to Jump” that to my knowledge is the first that focuses on the plight of Israeli Palestinians, those people who one of the interviewees refers to as the “pre-1948” Palestinians.
Co-director Mouna Stewart, who is presumably married to fellow director Patrick Stewart (not the Star Trek commander but someone far more noteworthy!), gathered together a group of Palestinians living in the old city of Akka to talk about the challenges they face from encroaching Zionist real estate magnates who are trying to buy the ancient homes of their impoverished dwellers, demolish them, and then erect huge eye-sores that will become part of an ethnically cleansed and utterly sterile and vulgar Acre—as the Israelis call it. It is nakba style gentrification.
Akka is an ancient city that was home to different cultures that co-existed peacefully. It remained sheltered from crusader type conquests because of an immense wall that faced the city’s coastline. The wall was first created at the beginning of the crusades and was built even higher under Ottoman rule.
After 1948, the city began to lose what would eventually amount to half of its Arab population. Those who remained, however, are committed to preserve their homes and their identity against what seems like insurmountable odds. They lack leverage because they have become so weakened economically. Under Zionist control, the city has been divested of its fishing industry through two different processes: one, the IDF’s refusal to allow fishing boats in much of the surrounding waters because they supposedly threaten military security; two, the pollution of the waters that Israeli authorities cannot care less about. As one interviewee put it, the Israelis get their seafood from fish farms (an environmental disaster) or import it.
In a declining economy, there’s little to sustain the Palestinian youth who resort to petty crime like selling drugs. One of the few things they can do is jump from the top of the walls into the Mediterranean even if it means risking serious injury. It is, however, a way for them to feel that they have transcended their dismal environment.
The film is a microcosm of the ongoing Palestinian struggle and a beautifully made film. It can be purchased from Cinema Libre, the distributor, for $19.95 and is worth every penny. Nay, it would be a bargain at twice the price.
I was also informed by Beth Portello, an executive at Cinema Libre, of two other resources of interest to those who would find such a film valuable. The first is a list of films they have published with the help of the “It’s Better to Jump” filmmakers that examine Palestine/Israel relations.
The other is Tips on Filming a Documentary in Israel. Who knows, maybe I’ll make good use of it one of these days!
January 22, 2014
Every so often the name of a town or neighborhood in Syria becomes a symbol of left divisions over the 3-year long civil war. First there was Houla, where a massacre of local villagers opposed to the dictatorship was blamed on the rebels, fueled by bogus reporting from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Next there was Ghouta, the Damascus suburb that once again involved a massacre of rebel sympathizers—this time by sarin gas. From the low—Mint Press—to the high (or at least, one-time high)—Seymour Hersh—the effort of the Baathist left once again has been directed toward turning the victim into the criminal. The latest incident involves Yarmouk, a neighborhood of a half-million Palestinian refugees that has been reduced to the aged, the ill, and those economically incapable of moving out of range of Baathist bombs and missiles.
I was planning to write about Yarmouk at some point down the road but decided to put it on the front-burner after a storm broke out in the comments section of Mondoweiss under a couple of articles written as rebuttals to an article that appeared there in the name of the Cornell chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine. The article adopts the talking points of the Baathist left:
And fourth, we do not forget the US and Gulf role in militarizing the small bright hopeful protests which began in the spring of 2011 across Syria, snuffing out those fires of hope in a deluge of sectarianism, foreign proxies, and destruction. Nor do we forget that it was the Free Syrian Army, the brand-name for the “milder” of the Western-armed gangs which have rampaged across Syria, along with Jabhat al-Nusra and other reactionary militias which went into Yarmouk a year ago. It was their decision to enter the camp in late 2012 which led to the subsequent violence and its emptying out, with its people now in global scatter, some literally drowning in the Mediterranean.
A Facebook friend has told me that Max Ajl, a graduate student in the Cornell development sociology department, wrote the statement. Since Ajl has been an ardent “anti-imperialist” for some time now, this made perfect sense. It also suggests to me why Jacobin, another enterprise he is involved with, has also published a bunch of nonsense about the Arab revolt. It is all the more puzzling in the case of Jacobin since the editorial positions are generally a lot closer to Dissent than Global Research. One imagines that Ajl has powers of persuasion that work wonders on those who are relative newcomers to Marxism.
In discussing Yarmouk, I don’t want to focus too much on refuting the particular talking points of the Baathist left, such as Syria’s right to drop barrel bombs on the neighborhood since there are “terrorists” among the civilian population—an argument recycled from the Zionist trash bin—but instead take up the broader question of whether Syrian rebels have anything in common with the Palestinians. I intend to answer an article written by Jonathan Cook that appeared on Mondoweiss and perhaps a dozen other websites titled “The false analogy of Syria and Palestine”. I didn’t bother replying to Cook when the article came out in November since I had better things to do at the time but will do so now since it is pertinent to the Yarmouk controversy.
Cook starts off by falsely accusing me of being a “diehard interventionist”, a charge that many people accept largely on the basis of my stubborn resistance to Baathist lies. In their mind, pointing out the obvious flaws in the facts and logic of a Mint Press article or Seymour Hersh’s reporting proves that I have been consulting on war plans with Samantha Powers. Since I was in the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s, when Maoists used to recycle Vishinski’s Moscow Trial accusations, such smears roll off my back like water from a duck’s.
Cook’s exercise in prolixity was prompted by an observation made in my article that was mostly about the sarin gas controversy that he totally avoided:
With his long time commitment to the Palestinian cause, [Cook] seems to have trouble understanding that those under attack in Homs or Aleppo have much in common with those living in Gaza. While he is obviously trained enough to understand and communicate the plight of one group of Arabs, another group gets short shrift because it is perceived as inimical to the interests of peace.
Let me take up Cook’s objections to analogizing Syria with Palestine one by one.
Gaza is not like Syria because Palestinians live under a belligerent occupation, not in a unified, if failing state run by a dictator.
Any idiot understands that Syria is a unified state that emerged out of the post-WWII decolonization upheaval, unlike Palestine that was cheated out of statehood. But I was referring to cities and not states: “those under attack in Homs or Aleppo”. Right? My point was that Bashar al-Assad was using collective punishment against civilians who were “harboring terrorists”, just as the IDF did in Gaza. How could he not understand this? Well, I suppose that this goes hand in hand with labeling me an “interventionist” in the complete absence of evidence.
Now it seems that Yarmouk has joined Homs and Aleppo as a site of what the US military referred to as destroying a town in order to save it during the Vietnam War. Last week Baathist helicopters dropped barrel bombs on Yarmouk apartment buildings. This was the result:
Here’s the result of IDF bombing in Gaza:
I’ll let you decide whether my comparison is valid.
Cook adds that “external intervention” might apply to Gaza but not to Syria:
The comparison with Gaza is also unhelpful because it is possible to be in favour of external efforts to remove the occupation in Gaza without that also requiring us to be in favour of external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.
This argument should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for speciousness if they had such an award (given the amount of times Thomas Friedman has walked off with an award, maybe they do.) Nobody on the left is in favor of “external efforts to overthrow the state apparatus in Syria.” We are, however, in favor of internal efforts. Of course Hizbollah, Iran and Russia don’t count as “external efforts” to overthrow the “internal efforts” to overthrow the Baathists. In a bravura performance of sophistry, Cook makes the case for reinforcing Baathist rule:
Also to be addressed is the paradox that for the Syrian government to negotiate safely it needs to ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states; but with such strength it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels. This is a paradox that relates to the current world order. We may not like that order, but it is the only one that exists at the moment.
This dodgy statement is basically the negotiating position of the Syria-Iran-Russia alliance and we should make no mistake about it. “To ensure its strength within the global system of nation-states” is a formula for continued Baathist domination of its subject population as Cook admits (“it has less interest in making concessions to the rebels”). At least when you read someone like Pepe Escobar or Robert Fisk, you don’t have to put up with such circumlocutions.
Like most of the analysis proffered by the Baathist left, Cook’s article has the musty odor of having been written during the mass hysteria around Obama’s “red line” bluff:
Syria is caught in a power game, with the US and Saudi Arabia trying to keep Iran and its ally Syria weak on one side, and Iran desperately trying to keep its few remaining allies, among them Syria, as strong as possible in its battle against efforts by Israel and the west to undermine its sovereign integrity. Ignoring this as the main framework for understanding what is happening in Syria inevitably leads to erroneous analysis and faulty solutions.
As I pointed out in the months immediately following the Ghouta massacre, American imperialism had zero interest in “regime change” and would likely do nothing more than fire off some missiles and then resort to the status quo ante. But even I could not have predicted the turn against all the rebels that coincided with the thaw with Iran. It has been Syria and Iran that the USA wants to keep strong, rather than weak. President Rouhani has made it very clear that Iran is open to Western business, a ploy adopted by al-Assad (and Qaddafi) years ago and one that leads to mass discontent so powerful as to unleash a revolution.
January 17, 2014
While you were neutral about Yarmouk
While you were insisting on neutrality about Yarmouk, the Syrian regime dropped barrel bombs on it. Mohammad Al Far. Husam Abo Ahmad. Mohammad Tafori. Mohammad Suhaib Al Qides. Ala’a Fri’j. These men are all dead. Mohammad Taha would later die too when he, along with a larger demonstration, approached a regime checkpoint in frustration after the carnage rained on them from above.
The Pro-Palestinian movement was delayed in picking up on the tragic unraveling of Yarmouk. It took the work of a great deal of dedicated activists to force it into the forefront of the solidarity movement’s agenda. What couldn’t be predicted, however, was that, in the place of silence, an ugly neutrality would hover over the new-founded concern. And that said the neutrality was often an unconvincing veil for something much more vile. Perhaps, in our naivety, we believe that when Yarmouk became visible, it would be nearly impossible to omit the clear fact that the siege was being imposed by the Syrian regime. Instead, it was the oppositional fighters in the camp who fell under the spotlight. A chorus emerged, one familiar enough to evoke a surreal sense of Déjà vu.
November 20, 2013
January 31, 2013
When I first began getting invitations to press screenings for Sony Picture Classics’ “The Gatekeepers”, my first reaction was to assume that it was similar to “The Law in These Parts”, the Israeli documentary that is based on interviews with the military judges responsible for creating Nuremberg type legal codes that made the Palestinians the modern equivalent of Jews under Nazi rule.. That film allowed the judges to hang themselves on their own petards as they offered self-vindicating rationales for bending the law to suit the needs of the settlers. It was all about combating “terrorism”.
I probably should have figured out that Sony was not likely to be distributing anything like that. The CEO of Sony Entertainment is one Michael Lynton who is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Furthermore, Sony produced “Zero Dark Thirty”, a film that is related to “The Gatekeepers” after a fashion.
But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.
The Shin Bet is Hebrew for the Israel Security Agency, founded in 1948. It is responsible for controlling the Arabs internally while the Mossad has the same kind of job externally. They are analogous to the FBI and the CIA respectively.
The men interviewed by Moreh agonize not so much about the Zionist project (who would expect them to) but about its difficulties, something they blame on both the unruly Palestinians and the Israeli ultraright. Terrorism of both the Hamas variety and Israeli ultrarightists of the sort who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin are obstacles to a “solution” of the Palestinian problem.
Moreh is content to allow these men to pontificate about their career with hardly any effort made to put them on the spot for illegal detention, torture, or murder. For example, in one interview, the matter of a handcuffed Palestinian being beaten to death in the aftermath of a bus hijacking is raised with Avraham Shalom, who ran Shin Bet from 1980 to 1986. When Shalom defends this obvious criminal act, Moreh does little to follow up with additional questions about what this says about Israeli “democracy”. One can hardly escape feeling that while obviously being appalled by IDF war crimes Moreh attributes them to a state of affairs forced upon a peace-loving but besieged people.
In a very shrewd review of “Zero Dark Thirty”, Israeli film reviewer Noam Sheizaf describes the changing character of his country’s film industry in recent years in words that are just as applicable to a documentary like “The Gatekeepers” as it is to narrative films:
Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arab’s fault. And sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.
Moreh appeared on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now on January 29th to promote his film that opens tomorrow at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and at the Film Forum on February 20th.
She asks Moreh to respond to this:
In this clip, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter discusses an Israeli bombing of a home in Gaza in July 2002. The attack killed Salah Shehadeh, the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, but also 14 innocent civilians, including Shehadeh’s wife and daughter and a family of seven living next door. Dozens were also wounded. The attack occurred just as Shehadeh was reportedly preparing to sign onto a ceasefire halting attacks on Israelis not in the Occupied Territories.
This is what he said:
Well, look, I—I have to say that I a little bit feel uncomfortable in the way that you present the things here, because you portray the things as if Israel is the brutal, aggressive all the time, with the Palestinians, that they are like doves. There is reason why the Shin Bet is doing what it’s doing there. And the fact of the matter is that you cannot say—in a way, portray Israel as the aggressive and the Palestinians are the innocent bystander who are always being killed by those aggressive forces. It’s not the case at all, and I think that this is misleading the people that are watching that.