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Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s words aptly captures the mood of a nation following Israel’s assassination of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh last week:
“And if they ask you about Palestine, tell them:
In it there is a martyr
nursed by a martyr
photographed by a martyr
sent off by a martyr
and prayed for by a martyr.”
Those of us watching the aftermath of her killing, followed by the horror of her funeral when Israeli security forces attacked her pall-bearers, carrying her coffin from the hospital to the church, unveils the reality of Israel and Zionism. It is not an aberration; it’s a continuation of 74 years of assassinations, theft and deceit. It should highlight for the world how Israel treats those who use various forms of media to reflect the reality in which they live.
Unfortunately, many throughout the world, and including in India, are ready and willing to accept Israel’s distorted point of view whether in the news or on film. And far too often there is a lack of awareness that this Israeli view comes directly from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It is the power of culture that Israel knows all too well. That’s why its Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is “responsible for ‘attaining prominence and high exposure abroad for Israel’s cultural and scientific activity, as an important tool for the promotion of its political interests.’”
Just like Palestinians have no equivalent army with which to fight their occupiers, Palestinians don’t have the resources to distribute their narrative through embassies around the world. This is why we see institutions like the Indian International Centre (IIC) cooperating with the Israeli Embassy to screen its films and we don’t see any Palestinian film festival whether or not it’s coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.
Indeed, whether it’s Palestinian food – from za’atar to hummus – pottery, embroidery or architecture, Israelis have stolen every inch of Palestinian culture as a way to simultaneously fabricate the longevity of their presence and create facts on the ground. The theft of Palestinian books from homes and libraries was one of the earliest ways in which Israel attacked Palestinian culture. Under Israeli rule, that practice continues in various ways, from censoring what books and art Palestinians are allowed to consume or create to shutting down cultural events.
In 2009, when I attended the Palestine Festival of Literature, I witnessed the Israeli security forces invade Al Hakawati, the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem. They shut it down so that the poetry reading – which featured writers from around the world – couldn’t be held in the national theatre. Poetry has long been particularly threatening to Israel, which is why they placed Mahmoud Darwish under house arrest and banned his poetry when he was alive.
Film has also long been a medium that Israel has banned, especially when it depicts realistic views of its military operations in Palestinian communities. In 2002, filmmaker Mohammad Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin was banned by the Israeli film censorship board, charging that he depicted their attack on the Jenin refugee camp in a libellous manner.
Such truth telling, especially when it garners attention from around the world, disturbs the hasbara (propaganda) that Israel uses to whitewash its crimes. Indeed, Jenin refugee camp is the very place where the Israeli army killed Abu Akleh to prevent journalists from reporting about their latest invasion of the camp.
Such occurrences are not an anomaly. Indeed, the Israeli army has repeatedly targeted journalists by killing or imprisoning them. Israel has killed at least nineteen journalists since 1992. Additionally, numerous other cultural workers have been part of Israel’s targeted assassinations over the last seven decades.
One of the most infamous such cases was Mossad’s bombing of novelist Ghassan Kanafani’s car, which also took the life of his 17-year-old niece Lamees in Beirut in 1972. In their obituary of Kanafani, Lebanon’s Daily Star said: “Ghassan was the commando who never fired a gun. His weapon was a ballpoint pen and his arena newspaper pages. And he hurt the enemy more than a column of commandos.”
Indeed, culture is a powerful form of resistance, something Darwish, Kanafani and Abu Akleh knew all too well.
In contrast to Palestinians using various forms of writing, filmmaking, dancing, cooking, art and the news media to tell their stories, hasbara has been an official Israeli strategy to cover up its crimes – whether the original theft of land during the Nakba (catastrophe) or more recent crimes like killing Abu Akleh and attacking mourners at her funeral. This is why filmmakers like Mira Nair or musicians like Zakir Hussein or writers like Kamila Shamsie have cancelled events in Israel to honour the cultural boycott.
This is precisely the situation we find ourselves in with the IIC’s cooperation with the Israeli Embassy, which helps Israel to conceal its ongoing crimes. By screening films like Zero Motivation, they humanise the occupying Israeli army through humour and render Palestinians invisible, much like the Zionist project more generally. It makes the army look “cool” and erases the context in which Israel and its army exist in the first place. On the drama side there are films like Bethlehem, which shows a different side of the Israeli military: its abuse of children by forcing them to become informants on their friends and family leading to their imprisonment and killing.
The IIC’s decision to screen these Israeli films in Kolkata and Delhi are sharing deliberately dishonest representations of what goes on in Israel’s apartheid regime. It dishonours Abu Akleh and the countless Palestinians who have risked their lives to tell the stories that Israel consistently covers up.
Marcy Newman is the author of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.