By Sam Bahour
Was it sheer coincidence, sad irony, or just another day in Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation? It was hard to tell. My father and I drove through the last Israeli checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem while heading to the Palestinian National Theatre at the invitation of The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) to attend the premiere of a new documentary on Jerusalem. The car radio switched from music to a news report – another Palestinian home in Jerusalem was demolished this morning by Israeli occupation authorities, leaving yet another Palestinian family homeless. We listened in disgust, sighed, but did not comment to each other for we would only be repeating ourselves.
As we entered the plaza of the theatre, we were met by film director Mohammed Alatar. Mohammed is known for his outstanding previous documentary, The Iron Wall , which depicted the systematic Israeli strategy of creating facts on the ground – facts that are rapidly making any chance for a negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis increasingly unlikely.
Tonight, the theatre was packed tight. Young and old local Palestinian Jerusalemites, staff from the dozens of international agencies based in Jerusalem, donor representatives, foreign representatives, media, and the crew that produced the film were all present. The audience anxiously awaited the lights to be turned out and the film to start. One constituency that was clearly missing was Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Those from Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Gaza, Rafah, and Hebron are all prohibited by Israeli regulations from entering Jerusalem without special permits that are rarely issued. The Iron Wall and tonight’s film, Jerusalem…The East Side Story, reveal the strategic policies that aim to Judaize the city and control Palestinian demographic growth. The resulting collective punishment is part of a larger scheme to pressure Palestinians into submission or flight.
Jerusalem…The East Side Story is a documentary that squeezes nearly 100 years of history into an hour or so of cinema. It mainly exposes the past 40 years of Israeli military occupation policies in Jerusalem and their devastating impact on the city and its peoples.
The producer of the film, Ms. Terry Boullata, stated at the outset of the evening that the intention of the documentary is to bring the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence to the Western audience who has shown by way of its acquiescence to the ongoing Israeli military occupation that it still needs to be educated.
The film kicks off with a rapid-fire collage of a normal day in Jerusalem. The famous Jerusalem sesame-seed round loaf of bread, people from all walks of life, from all religions worshiping their Gods, the traffic, the city dwellers, the Old City shops, Jewish kids playing, Moslem kids playing, Christian kids playing, and on and on. The collage happens in a way that makes it difficult to decipher who is who. If it were not for a few abnormal shots – soldiers, weapons, checkpoints, settlements, arrests, confrontation, Jewish-only settlements, house demolitions, and many other trappings of a military occupation peppered throughout what can be considered normal life – one could falsely imagine that coexistence already existed.
One at a time, the film picks up on these abnormal scenes – concisely, succinctly, and with a clear effort to maintain utmost accuracy. Before taking on each issue, a load of history is presented using black-and-white footage. Some of the shots are from the United Nations hall where General Assembly Resolution 181 to partition Palestine was voted on in 1947; the battles in Jerusalem in 1967, which ended with Israel militarily occupying all of East Jerusalem; and Palestinian refugees streaming over the border to Jordan in order to flee the fighting. This rarely seen footage strikes a raw nerve in most Palestinians as could be witnessed by many in the audience just shaking their heads at the scenes of violent dispossession in action.
The film brings many Jerusalemites, including many Jewish Israelis, to tell their story firsthand. Several accounts caught my attention. The first was that of Mr. Meron Benvenisti , an Israeli political scientist who was deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1978. Mr. Benvenisti makes a case for the more than 10,000 Palestinians who were displaced by Israel from West Jerusalem after Israel was created in 1948, and became internally displaced persons while still in their city – albeit forced to the east side.
The other moving personal account is of a Palestinian woman from West Jerusalem, Mrs. Nahla Assali, who walks the audience around the home that her family fled in 1948, only to come back after the war to find a Jewish family living in it and a plush Israeli neighbourhood replacing her childhood environs. Mrs. Assali ends her sombre account with a sentence that speaks volumes. She says, “We live in fantasy, they live in denial, and one day we should both come to reality.”
Another personality who appears throughout the film to add his insight is the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land , the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan. Rev. Younan speaks with the clarity expected from a man of the cloth and is unwavering in his demand for both a moral and legal compass to be used to bring Jerusalem out of its dangerous disorientation.
Throughout the film, the selection of music is superb. Arabic and English clips take the audience from one issue to the next, but each song is a deep reflection of the issue at hand. One tune that is repeated throughout is, “ I Still Haven’t Found What I’ve Been Looking for ” by the band U2 – a relevant choice for anyone looking for peaceful coexistence in Jerusalem in the 21st century.
One of the most moving parts of the film is its coverage of the phenomenon of house demolitions. The film meticulously goes through the process of how the Israeli occupation authorities have administratively installed a system of occupation that is sugar-coated with a legal wrap, but leads to the same end as all the other measures of the occupation: to contain and control Palestinian demographic growth through destroying Palestinian livelihood and creating a reality that is designed to encourage the Palestinians to choose to exit rather than stay and demand their rights. One young schoolgirl explains how she came home from school one day to find her family’s home demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Her mother explains how she sat in the rubble waiting for her daughter to return home from school fearing the shock that her daughter was about to experience. This account brought tears to my eyes.
Experts on the subject of house demolitions state in the film that once a demolition order is issued by the Israeli authorities, the Palestinian home may be demolished in 24 hours or 24 years. The film attempts to depict what a nerve-wracking reality this creates for hundreds of Palestinian families in Jerusalem whose homes are already marked for demolition.
The film explains in bite-size history lessons how Jerusalem was not only conquered by force, but also how the State of Israel took distinct annexation measures to enlarge the city boundaries in order to block the possibility of a sustainable Palestinian presence in the city. Meshed with this discussion is the most recent manifestation of Israel’s separation policy: the illegal separation barrier – part wall and part fence – which cuts through Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and leaves Palestinian Jerusalemites in utter limbo.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is interviewed and equates the Israeli policy in Jerusalem with that of “ethnic cleansing.” His statement is bound to catch the ear of all those on the Israeli right and in the U.S. Congress who would like no better than to label President Abbas a non-partner in peace negotiations, as they successfully did with Yasser Arafat.
I’ve only mentioned a few samples of what this film presents. The most shocking ones I’ll leave to your viewing, especially the episode that relates to activities carried out by the Jewish settler movement inside the walled Old City, in collusion with official Israeli authorities.
If you have a desire for justice, you will exit this film with your blood boiling. Then you may recall that, in the face of all of this, Palestinians have remained steadfast for decades while they have been acted upon as if they were mice in a laboratory experiment. Saluting the resilience of Palestinians will be a natural reaction to all these emotions. However, if you hold a U.S. passport and recall that it is U.S. political support and funding that has allowed things to reach this level of inhumanity, you will walk away disgraced, rightfully so. This feeling of disgrace toward the U.S. will also be felt as the audience bursts out in laughter when President Bush is shown speaking – or rather stuttering – about Israel’s illegal separation barrier and says, “This wall is … uh … a problem …”
I also watched the film premiere a second time in Ramallah for those in the West Bank, given that they could not freely travel to Jerusalem. It was another packed house, with the walls of the Al-Kasaba Theatre and Cinematheque in Ramallah taking the standing overflow of the audience.
Next to me in the first row sat a young family: Laura, a beautiful six-year-old girl, and her parents. I was pleasantly disturbed when, throughout the film, Laura repeatedly whispered to her mother “What’s this?” She asked this when the screen showed Palestinians being arrested, when homes were being demolished, when people were being harassed at checkpoints, and at other times. Seeing this young girl nag her mom for an explanation at every one of these scenes gave me a tremendous sense of relief that today’s globalised generation of Palestinians will not drop the torch of this just cause. Knowing that Palestinian mothers across the occupied territory and throughout refugee camps in Palestine and abroad are explaining our just cause to yet another generation (regretfully I’m sure) somehow makes up for the lack of coherence and leadership today.
Director Mohammed Alatar made a few comments following the Jerusalem premiere. He said that he did not make the film so that people would like it, because there is nothing to like in military occupation; but rather he hopes and prays that people will wake up to today’s bitter reality in the historic city of Jerusalem and do what it takes to bring peace to this troubled city. His remarks echoed the closing of the film which, instead of taking sides, noted that the ultimate loser in this conflict is Jerusalem, the city. One of the closing statements by the narrator is, “When the stones of Jerusalem become more holy than its people, doesn’t it lose its holiness? – A question well worth reflecting upon.
Don’t miss this one.
-Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in El-Bireh/Ramallah and may be reached at email@example.com. The DVD of the film may be found at http://www.eastsidestory.ps (soon to be operational) and will be showing before the end of the year in the cities of London, Paris, Brussels, Houston, San Antonio, and Chicago, among others.