Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
Q. Two weeks ago, an Israeli court banned the screening of a film, “Jenin Jenin”, about the IDF and the second Intifada. It ordered the Arab Israeli creator of the film, the actor Mohammed Bakri, to pay damages to an IDF veteran. The film was made 18 years ago. Why muzzle and penalize it now?
A. First, a word about “Jenin Jenin”, which you can google and download on the web, and its creator, Bakri. The film purports to depict from a Palestinian standpoint, in documentary style, the Israeli siege and conquest of the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank in April 2002, in the course of the second Intifada or Palestinian uprising.
At a broader level, “Jenin Jenin” vilifies Israel’s military tactics against the Palestinians during that intifada, which raged from September 2000 into 2005. Those years witnessed a Palestinian campaign of bloody suicide bombings against Israeli civilians inside Israel (not in the West Bank or Gaza), and a massive and violent retaliatory Israeli reoccupation of the West Bank.
For years, IDF veterans from the reserve brigade that carried out the Jenin operation sued Bakri for defamation in Israeli courts. They launched an escalating series of libel charges, appealing all the way to the Supreme Court. Israel’s courts determined that the film contained lies and libel, but not libel directed at specific individuals. Hence the film was protected by Israel’s freedom of expression laws.
Until, finally, careful detective work succeeded in identifying a single IDF reservist in the film, Lieutenant Colonel (reserves) Nissim Magnaji. Note that Bakri interviews no Israelis in his film and IDF occupation soldiers are seen in fleeting background shots, hence their images are generally indistinct. With broad backing from Israeli veterans of combat during the second Intifada, Magnaji sued Bakri for defamation and demanded an NIS 2.6 million award (more than $800,000).
Now a specific individual had been libeled. Lod District Court Judge Halit Silash ruled in Magnaji’s favor, awarded him NIS 175,000 ($55,000) in damages, and banned the film. Bakri is appealing the decision.
Q. You seem to see this as a central and controversial issue in Israeli-Palestinian relations . . .
A. The latest court ruling shines a spotlight on an 18-year-old narrative and freedom of speech controversy that is at the heart of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Jenin refugee camp witnessed the bloodiest and most controversial battle of Operation Defensive Shield, the IDF’s invasion and reoccupation of the West Bank during the second Intifada. In many ways, the IDF has remained in the West Bank ever since, insisting on its right to roam the Palestinian Authority and enter refugee camps and homes whenever Israeli security requires. In a broader context, the Jenin battle symbolizes the end of Palestinian security autonomy under the Oslo Accords. Indeed, at the political level, and seen in retrospect, the Jenin battle symbolizes the end of any hope that Oslo would pave the way for a two-state solution.
That explains the significance of “Jenin Jenin”. Grossly simplified, if “Jenin Jenin” is true, the conflict is all Israel’s fault. If it is a libelous lie, this is yet another Palestinian cop-out and refusal to confront realities. This is a microcosm of the entire conflict, a refining of the ultimate clash of narratives.
Q. What in your view happened in Jenin in April 2002?
A. Operation Defensive Shield was launched on March 29 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the immediate aftermath of the Pesach eve bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya two days earlier that killed 30 Israelis celebrating the traditional Seder. This was the worst suicide bombing in Israeli history. The country was traumatized and angry.
Throughout Defensive Shield, only in Jenin did the IDF encounter serious, organized armed Palestinian resistance. Many hundreds of booby traps in the camp’s narrow lanes forced IDF troops to move from house to house by breaking through connecting walls. When they did try to advance through the camp’s cramped alleys in order to limit Palestinian civilian losses, 13 IDF reserve infantrymen were killed in an ambush. That is when the Israeli army decided to introduce huge D9 bulldozers which leveled an entire section of the camp, albeit after calling on the civilian population to evacuate.
Prior to Defensive Shield, Fateh had proudly termed Jenin and its 14,000-strong refugee camp “capital of the suicide bombers”. Terrorist activities there were coordinated among the three main Palestinian movements: Fateh, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Once the IDF moved in, PIJ in particular was dedicated to a fight to the finish. Its combatants detonated gas canisters inside homes where, often, non-combatant residents remained and were in effect killed by Palestinian friendly fire.
Q. And what does “Jenin Jenin” depict?
A. Bakri, a Palestinian citizen of Israel and until 2002 a greatly admired actor in Israeli films and stage productions, arrived at the partially destroyed Jenin refugee camp a few days after the IDF conquered it. “Jenin Jenin” is a powerful film that presents a totally one-sided Palestinian narrative of the price paid by Palestinian civilians in the camp in the course of Defensive Shield. The film features endless shots of destroyed buildings, interspersed with testimony of alleged Israeli atrocities. No atrocities are actually documented. The IDF is represented by brief media clips of tanks, bulldozers, soldiers.
A doctor describes Israeli rockets destroying a hospital. There are no before and after photos. “What harm have these houses done?” asks one elderly man against a backdrop of rubble. He points: “Here was a fig tree, here a lemon tree.”
Nowhere are Palestinian suicide bombings mentioned as a factor nourishing the anger behind the Israeli attack. No one notes Palestinian fighters having been in the camp at all, only “our resistance”. Nor is Israel blamed alone. President George W. Bush, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Madeleine Albright, the Arab states--all allegedly abandoned the Palestinians.
Most of those whom Bakri interviews are old men and very articulate young girls, i.e., victims, not combatants. There is a deaf-mute man whose pantomime of IDF soldiers shooting speaks volumes. Palestinians are the morally righteous resistance fighters combating the morally depraved Israelis. That there is scant credible evidence for the film’s claims of Israeli war crimes is a testament to its skillful conception and presentation. It is, indeed, a brilliant and moving piece of Palestinian propaganda.
Q. And there was international reaction back then . . .
A.The extensive damage in Jenin inspired and nourished inflated Palestinian claims of thousands of civilian deaths. Israel was hard put to disprove these accusations because for days it prevented the entry of observers and journalists to the Jenin refugee camp due to what it described as ongoing security threats there in the form of booby-trapped ruins and bodies. PLO senior spokesman Yasser Abd Rabo claimed that the IDF had murdered and buried 900 Palestinians in the Jenin camp.
The Palestinian claims inevitably led to international condemnation. The United Nations delegated Terye Roed-Larsen to investigate. Larsen, a Norwegian, had headed an Oslo think tank, Fafo, in the 1990s when he facilitated the Israeli-Palestinian informal negotiations that eventuated in the Oslo Accords. Now, as a United Nations under-secretary general, he visited the Jenin camp, but only after the IDF had kept him waiting for 11 days. There, he dramatically declared he had seen “horrifying scenes of human suffering. . . . Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict.”
Eventually, commissions of investigation from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reduced the number of Palestinian casualties in Jenin to less than 60, nearly half of whom were armed fighters. A UN report delayed until August 2002 put the Palestinian death toll at 52, of whom more than half were armed combatants. (IDF figures updated to April 16 cited 46 dead in the Jenin refugee camp of whom only two were non-combatants.) IDF Central Command claimed that its forces had levelled only 130 buildings out of 1,896 in the Jenin refugee camp. According to an Islamic Jihad bomb-maker from Jenin quoted in Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly, “We had more than 50 houses booby-trapped around the camp”. A captured Islamic Jihad operative, Tabeat Mardawi, told CNN that over 1,000 explosive devices had been prepared.
Most of this information arrived too late in terms of Israel’s standing with world opinion.
Q. Banning the film seems ridiculous in this age of Google. Where is the relevance today?
A.Even today, it is hard after watching and listening to Bakri’s traumatized witnesses to accept the perpetual Israeli claim, war after war, that “the IDF is the most moral army in the world”. (In truth, there is no such creature.) And it is hard to justify the then 35-year-long (now 53-year-long) occupation of the West Bank. “After this, coexistence with Jews is impossible,” states one man interviewed in the film. “They are the real losers.” “Jenin Jenin” is a skillful effort at blackening Israel’s image. It is also a testimony to the seeming impossibility of reconciling Israelis and Palestinians.
In a 2020 courtroom interview, Bakri readily admitted that “no one has a monopoly on the truth. . . . Perhaps someone exaggerated due to trauma and the terrible wound. I’m sure there were exaggerations. But an exaggeration is not necessarily proof of a lie. I tried to portray in great detail the inner Palestinian soul.”
‘Alternative facts’ or alternative narratives? Which is the inner Palestinian soul? You can find something similar in the controversy over claims that Israel is obliged to inoculate West Bank and Gazan Palestinians against covid-19 (see last week’s Q & A).
The IDF’s April 2002 Jenin operation not only involved the loss of 23 soldiers. It also clearly constituted an abject Israeli failure at integrating the media into a military operation and explaining Israel’s military goals and calculations to the international public.
The IDF claims it has learned the lesson of Jenin. Perhaps. A bigger lesson would be learned if the film were not only not banned, but rather featured in discussions of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in front of an audience. Even if everything the film claims is objectively wrong, mean and libelous, it remains a powerful statement of the Palestinian narrative--one we must confront openly and honestly.
As to the latest court decision, there are two aspects. Libel is one; the light financial penalty imposed on Bakri is barely symbolic. But muzzling freedom of expression in Israel by banning the film is something else entirely.
Q. Will the renewed controversy over Jenin Jenin affect real-time Israeli-Palestinian relations?
A.Hardly. Israelis are busy with covid, heavy lockdown layoffs and March 23 elections.
As for Palestinians, the PLO is sprucing up their image in anticipation of improved relations with the Biden administration. The Palestinian Authority has announced a democratic housecleaning: new parliamentary and presidential elections this coming spring and summer, for the first time since 2006. Many doubt that the necessary coordination between Fateh in the West Bank, Hamas in Gaza and Israel in East Jerusalem will actually enable the elections. Some doubt whether aging President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) will, if he runs and loses, really relinquish power.
Meanwhile, Arab citizens of Israel are busy with the country’s March 23 elections where, for the first time, they could end up as kingmakers. And they are concerned over an unprecedented crime wave sparked by criminal gangs, huge armories of illegal weapons, and Israel Police overload and negligence.
“Jenin Jenin” is, accordingly, not an immediate concern. Yet the controversy over the film should not be shunted to the sidelines. It touches on the core narrative issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.