The Nakba (literally “catastrophe”) is generally known as the 1948 Palestinian exodus, which was the central component of the splintering, dispossession and displacement of the Palestinian society. In the process, between 400 and 600 Palestinian villages were demolished. Almost 20 years after the Nakba, the second conflict in 1967 led to the Naksa (“the defeat”).
It signalled a second refugee flow, as well as the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. May 2021 saw the flare-up of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, fuelled by rocket attacks on Israel by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. So how has the ongoing conflict been preserved and explored in film, and how much of it is still considered taboo?
Before we delve into the world of cinematic representation, we should first address the fact that the beginning of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered by some to have occurred in the late 1800s, when the immigration of Jews to the Palestinian portion of the Ottoman Empire increased significantly. Others ascribe it to the British Mandate for Palestine (1918-1948).
Most often, though, it’s linked to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. As a result, 80% of the Palestinians residing in what became Israel fled, or were driven out by force, with many left to live in refugee camps. In 2021, Israel celebrated 73 years of independence, while Palestinians have been memorialising over seven decades of the Nakba, as well as the military occupation of 22% of historic Palestine.
The Alpha Diaries (2007)
Yaniv Berman’s revolutionary documentary focuses on military reserve life in Israel. As a soldier in the Israeli army, Berman was able to shadow fellow soldiers and capture moments of incomparable insight into their psyche. They’re shown not only gliding across the Palestinian border to carry out night-time house arrests, but folding in on themselves in moments of placid self-reflection and mounting despair.
The documentary pounces on raw emotion, feeding on both the degradation of the Palestinian civilians, and the helplessness of the Israeli soldiers tasked with carrying out the severe, unsettling tasks that come with their olive-green uniform.
To See If I Am Smiling (2007)
Tamar Yarom’s documentary shows six Israeli women giving a personal account of their life in the Israeli Army, specifically in the Occupied Territories. The film offers a glimpse at the tension that results from an unending war, and sharpens the moral challenges that the soldiers confronting the Palestinian population have to grapple with. What’s interesting is that the women are seen criticising their past behaviour, recognising the volatility of the power that’s placed in the hands of eighteen-year-old soldiers.
Nation Estate (2012)
Larissa Sansour’s short sci-fi drama takes a dystopian and jocular approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It blends computer-generated imagery with vibrant colours to mould a skyscraper called The Nation Estate. This vertical unravelment of the conflict offers the Palestinian population the chance to live an equally high life, no longer weighed down by its economic destitution.
On the Side of the Road (2013)
Lia Tarachansky’s documentary shines a spotlight on the landscape of denial. As a former West Bank settler, she dissects Israelis’ collective amnesia regarding the devastating events of 1948. She prods Israeli veterans to try to root out their denial of the war that transformed the region forever. But, seen as the country’s biggest taboo, Tarachansky’s inquiry is met with fury and brutality.
This is My Land (2013)
Tamara Erde’s documentary sees her make her way inside the classroom, burdened by the role of the Palestinian and Israeli education systems in teaching the history of their nations. She follows several teachers around over one academic year, both in Israel and Palestine. In doing so, she comes across not only individuals with the aim of passing a highly subjective perception to their impressionable students, but also those, who swim gallantly against the current, trying to deter the youth from hostility and violence.
The Gatekeepers (Israel Confidential) (2013)
Dror Moreh’s documentary shows six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service agency, reflecting on the controversy surrounding the Occupation and the repercussions of the Six Day War. In an interview with the IDA, the director revealed that his jaw scraped the floor “at least 30 times”. What is most surprising is that Israeli citizens are taught that, as a nation, they’re constantly striving for peace, and it’s everyone else that refuses to abide by the same principle. During the film, the interviewees make it clear that this notion is idyllic at best, delusional at worst.
The Oslo Diaries (2018)
Directors Mor Loushy and Daniel Sivan came together to film a documentary about Middle Eastern peace talks at the Oslo Accords in 1992. At the time, Israeli-Palestinian relations were at an all-time low, and any form of communication between the two sides was punishable by jail time. Undeterred, a group of Israelis and Palestinians met secretly in Oslo several times, chronicling their journey towards peace. Their gatherings would result in a dramatic change in the political landscape of the Middle East. Thanks to the archival footage and their diary entries, we get a sense of the immense pressure the negotiators faced.
Victimhood as an identity
Palestinian filmmakers often use various means to draw attention to their strong connection to the land. This can be observed in Michel Khleifi’s Wedding in Galilee (1987), for example. What’s shocking about the film is that it contains an inferred critique of Palestinian violence, and doesn’t look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the lens of religion.
What is minced, instead, is the society’s general inaptitude to establish peace, with all its fruitless, violent tactics of approaching the issue. Bruno Higueras connects the ongoing conflict to the “victimhood as an identity” complex, pointing out that both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict assume the role of the victim. The problem, of course, is that victimhood serves as a weapon in its own right, providing the injured party a moral standing over the other. This leads to amplified brutality and self-proclaimed righteousness.
It seems that both the Israelis and the Palestinians are stuck in a frozen existence, dealing with a traumatic past that is not only stubbornly connected to their present, but affects their future. What’s worse, it appears that the collective memory of the Israelis is heavily filtered, presumably to serve the continuation of the country’s religious narrative. Unfortunately, this approach bends not only time, but the evolution of the society’s identity. As Higueras put it,