‘The Present’ – On Netflix – Makes Apartheid Visible

This year at the Oscars ‘The Present,’ directed by Farah Nabulsi, represented Palestine in the short live-action film category. It did not win. It did win, however, the best short film at the ‘British Academy for Films and Television,’ as well as at the Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Palm Springs Film Festivals. Incidentally, an Israeli film in the same Oscar category, ‘White Eye,’ also didn’t win. Maybe the two films had simply canceled each other out (more about it later).

What brings me to write about the film, which I recently watched on Netflix, is the question of Apartheid in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in regard to the Palestinian people, very much in the news lately. Just earlier this month, according to the Times of Israel: “Poll finds a quarter of US Jews think Israel is ‘apartheid state’.” These numbers are higher in Europe and elsewhere, while Israel keeps rejecting this label as libel. However, for Israelis and Jews worldwide to bury our heads in the sand regarding this escalating sentiment won’t help matters, or change the terrible situation on the ground. Which is what the short film ‘The Present” had set out to show.

With limited success, in my view. As for the plot: The film centered on a father and daughter in the Palestinian enclaves of the Israeli-occupied West Bank who are trying to buy a wedding anniversary gift. From their small village they travel to Beitunia, a Palestinian town near Ramallah, where they buy some groceries and a new refrigerator. Their progress in both directions is impeded by roadblocks and checkpoints, culminating in a harrowing scene when at a checkpoint near their home, a group of young Israeli soldiers tries to prevent them from passing through with their present back home.

As for the film itself, I do understand why the Academy voters hadn’t selected it the winner. While as the story of the father and daughter (Saleh Bakri and  Maryam Kanj) rings true, is well-acted, and very emotionally engaging, some of what they go through—especially at the end—doesn’t make sense at all. In the beginning there is a scene at a real checkpoint, when the father goes to work in the morning, which is very real and horrifying. But the checkpoint near their small village is utterly ridiculous and cartoonish.

Yes, checkpoints are placed in the West Bank in strategic locations where Palestinians cross into Israel and coming back from Israel. There are roadblocks and such when military situations demand them. But no checkpoint, quite an elaborate one at that, is placed near a small Palestinian village of a few houses, separating that village from a nearby Palestinian town where the father goes to buy the groceries and the present. No Palestinian in the West Bank leaves his village to buy milk and toilet paper and has to pass through a checkpoint in order to do that. Checkpoints are bad, absolutely so, but this one was placed there artificially by the director just to score a point. She misses. *

The ‘bad’ Israeli soldiers (speaking Hebrew with an Arabic accent) aren’t real, just as the whole situation isn’t real. To make things worse, the little girl (who earlier peed in her pants just seeing the Israeli soldiers and their threatening behavior towards her father) now saves the day by wheeling the trolley with the refrigerator on the road. It’s no more plausible than if I’ll try to push an elephant off the road. For no apparent reason—another artificial plot point—the truck that brought the fridge had to stop, so that the father will continue his journey by wheeling his fridge back home on a trolley. Sympathetic as I am to the Palestinians’ plight and aspirations, the last scene at the “checkpoint” stretches the imagination big time, and it is just about ludicrous. It’s a pity that such a good idea, and overall a good film at its core, gets a propagandistic treatment at times, especially at the end. **

However, regarding the larger point the film tries to make (including, I assume, female empowerment), it is more successful. That the Palestinian people deserve a state of their own, was pointed out here in this blog plenty of times. That the occupation must end, likewise. The inhumanity of it all, of course. But concerning Apartheid, it was a close call for me so far. In fact, in my April post—”What’s Behind the Latest Buzzwords: ‘Israeli-Palestinian Confederation’?”—I termed it “an Apartheid-in-progress.” I stick by this definition, for now, though no doubt every day that passes without a solution brings the situation on the ground closer to a real Apartheid.

What Israel doesn’t get, not only regarding the Palestinian people and conflict but also about the increasing discomfort and doubts spreading among American Jews, is that the current situation is unsustainable. Just ‘managing the situation’ won’t solve anything and doesn’t work anymore. Calling it ‘unfeasible’ and ‘unsolvable,’ likewise. The last flare-up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has shown, at least as to the ‘media wars’ and the opinions of most people around the world, that Israel is losing that war. And rightly so. A film like ‘The Present’ most definitely underscores this point, and helps spread the word. 

* According to the IDF, a Palestinian civilian in the West Bank can travel from the northern city of Jenin to Bethlehem just south of Jerusalem, without encountering a single military checkpoint. (Wikipedia.)

** According to program director Col. Triber Bezalel, the IDF employs humanitarian officers at various checkpoints. These officers are tasked with making life easier for those who cross the borders and aiding the elderly and sick. (Wikipedia.)

*** The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

Israel’s Grand Illusion Collapses in Gaza’s Ruins

news.yahoo.com

The Film ‘The Grand Illusion’ by Jean Renoir, which I’ve been returning to occasionally through the years, is a 1937 B&W masterpiece that suggests, among other things, that “war is futile, and that mankind’s common experiences should prevail above political division, and its extension: war.” (Wikipedia.) “Renoir’s critique of contemporary politics and ideology celebrates the universal humanity that transcends national and racial boundaries and radical nationalism.”

I was thinking often about this film during the latest Israeli-Palestinian flare-up of semi-war with Hamas in Gaza. And what strikes me the most is not only the futility of war (it’s the fourth or fifth such round-of-hostility since Hamas took over power in Gaza in 2007), but the complete collapse of Israel’s belief that the Palestinian issue and conflict has been put to rest. The notion that—especially during the last twelve years of Netanyahu’s rule—the Palestinian political struggle for independence and a state of their own is practically all but over. That Israel has succeeded in squashing their national aspirations down. That they will agree, and get used to living as second, or third-class citizens under Israel’s occupation for good.

Maybe the biggest prize that Trump has given Netanyahu—more even than moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem, and declaring the disputed Golan Heights an Israeli territory—was the ‘Abraham Accords.’ The so-called ‘peace deal’ with the United Emirates and Bahrain, far away oil-rich Sheikdoms, and then Morocco and Sudan, all bribed and blackmailed to a degree by the Trump/Kushner administration with ‘huge’ presents to sign in on it. Of course, Israel was never at war with any of these outlier countries, and the agreement was at best a ‘normalization of relations.’ “We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Jared Kushner wrote in the Wall Street Journal two months ago.

Unfortunately, many fell into the fallacy of these agreements, including some experience, astute observers. For Netanyahu, the biggest prize was that by diverting the conflict away from the Palestinian issue—here we go, ‘The Grand Illusion’—that conflict would go away. So much so that he and others in the Israeli government were living under the delusion that the Palestinian issue is done and cooked on low heat forever, never to be irrupted again. “The deadly fiction that the Palestinians were so abject and defeated that Israel could simply ignore their demands,” wrote Michelle Goldberg in the NY Times recently.

Oh man, how wrong one can be—Netanyahu that is—when one’s sole purpose is to remain in power. And to use that power as means not for justice and humanity, but for victory at all costs. And make no mistake, the latest war was not about Gaza, nor was it about “Israel’s right to defend itself.” It was not even about the Palestinian elections and their inner power struggle, or Israel’s politicians attempting to form a governing coalition (as some have suggested). No: It was about the Palestinians right to exist in dignity. To have a state of their own. To be treated as human beings with equal rights under the sun. Not to be evicted at will from their homes in Jerusalem—where it all had started, this time and also many years ago—and to end the occupation once and for all. To borrow and paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan, it was “The occupation, stupid.”

Israel’s refusal since the end of the Six-Day War of 1967 to realize that, to accept the consequences, and mostly its failure to stop the expansion of the settlement endeavor, is very costly and now almost behind repair. The two-state solution is dead, declared so here before, or at best is on death bed. Even with Biden in charge in Washington; even with a new Prime Minister in Israel (hard to believe it would ever happen); even if Israelis would realize their mistake (some do, the majority don’t), I don’t see how it can be reversed. I hope it can, but the facts on the ground, and the political challenges against it, are too immense. It is now a one-state solution. And how it would survive and thrive is anybody’s guess.

Case in point: Arab Israelis. Or Palestinian Israelis. For the first time in a long time they irrupted too. On the streets of Israeli cities with mixed populations—Lod, Accra, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Jaffa—they revolted and took to the streets, causing death, injuries, and havoc. They fought against extremist Jewish right-wingers who fought against them with the police mostly on their side. (Black Lives Matter, anybody?) It was ugly. It was violent. But it proved one point rather clearly: Put aside the political overture of some Israeli politicians and one Arab moderate politician to form a united governing coalition, the Arab Israeli people are not with them. They see themselves as Palestinians. That is how and where their hearts beat.

So deal with it, Israel, before it’s too late. If it’s not already so.

* The ‘Leave a Comment’ link is the last tag below, in blue.

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