Standing on a traffic island in the heart of The German Colony in Haifa this spring my traveling companions and I met three high school sisters and their aunts from El Makr, an Arab town east of Akko. We jostled deferentially, taking pictures of the lights up in the Baha’i Gardens. Although El Makr is just a few miles up the road, this appeared to be a special outing for the girls. Like us, they were tourists and we formed that quick and uninhibited bond that only travelers can experience.
The girls were eager to share. We spoke two, three times as we meandered past the cafes up David Ben Gurion Boulevard. They danced around the elephant in the street: “The Jews,” they said, “we have a problem with them.” It was not said with animus, but rather to hint at a central existential fact about their lives.
A couple of days ago, as Israel and Hamas were slouching towards Operation Protective Edge the girls directed us to Hany Abu-Assad’s new film, Omar. “This explains everything,” they said in a Facebook message. So we watched the film, and indeed, it explains much.
The current tragedy playing out in Israel started with a reconciliation pact between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which Netanyahu hated and has tried to sabotage. It appears that a rogue faction of Palestinian actors attempted to sabotage the pact from the Palestinian side with the kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva students in the West Bank. This was followed by a massive, overly broad crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces, the discovery and burial of the three dead students, a massive funeral, and a retaliatory abduction and murder of a 16 year old Palestinian boy in East Jerusalem by six soccer hooligan, religious nationalist zealots. This was followed by rocket attacks from Gaza and retaliatory strikes from Israel.
As of this writing, 80 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, many houses have been destroyed, and rockets have exploded over Tel Aviv, near Be'er Sheba, and up near Haifa--without any Israeli casualties thus far. And they are just getting started. As I watch this tragedy unfold, I can't help but think--this is the dynamic portrayed in the film Omar writ large.
Here is A. O. Scott’s sketch of the film in the NYT:
Amjad, Omar and Tarek, militants affiliated with the Aksa Martyrs Brigades, carry out a sniper attack on an Israeli military outpost. This … leads to a series of tragic and sometimes absurd events that ensnare everyone … in a web of conflicting loyalties and motives. … Arrested and imprisoned, Omar is told by Rami (Waleed Zuaiter), the Israeli officer handling his case, that he can either cooperate and inform on his friends or spend the rest of his life locked up far away from Nadia and everyone else he cares about. Though Omar tries to find a way out of this predicament, the Israelis are always a step ahead of him, and everyone back home assumes that he has already turned collaborator.
….Mr. Abu-Assad shows a world from which all trust has vanished, where every relationship carries the possibility — perhaps the inevitability — of betrayal and where every form of honor is corroded by lies. Omar grows increasingly dependent on Rami, and correspondingly suspicious of Tarek, Amjad and even Nadia. The future he had originally envisioned for himself, as a fighter in the Palestinian cause who could marry his sweetheart and take her to Paris on a honeymoon, comes to seem almost ridiculously naïve.
Omar is so completely trapped that it becomes difficult to imagine how his story will end, a narrative blockage that symbolizes the larger impasse in which Jews and Arabs, whatever their specific allegiances, now find themselves. “Omar” does not offer the promise of a just or satisfying resolution, a fatalism all the more devastating given its realistic methods and humane, understated performances. The film’s final scene feels shocking and abrupt, but also chillingly inevitable, consistent with the logic of a situation that defies all reason.
“Narrative blockage” seems like an apt metaphor. As Richard Falk has recently pointed out, no one has a narrative with enough plausibility to challenge the status quo. There is no agreement on strategic goals. For years now, the world community has paraded the two-state solution like a corpse. In the meantime, Israelis speak of “mowing the grass” and Palestinians feel trapped between suffering quietly or carrying out sniper attacks on IDF outposts like the protagonists in Omar, kidnapping the vulnerable, or launching ineffectual rockets from Gaza—which all seems to amount to the same thing, with predictably tragic consequences.
Even absent a convincing narrative, however, there is the question of tactics for both sides. On the Israeli side, as Marc Ellis has noted, “mowing the grass” works. To the extent that Israel is satisfied with its military Spartan existence, there is nothing on the horizon to topple this state. Military power won’t do it, terrorism won’t do it, and it seems unlikely that BDS will get the job done either. Marc Ellis is not idly belittling the Presbyterian’s BDS resolution, and the fact that Noam Chomsky is muddled on the concept does not bode well. But surely Chomsky is correct that meaningful sanctions by the U.S. or the UN are not in the cards any time soon, and BDS without the S doesn’t amount to much. If Israel ever decides it wants peace for real, tactics will change, but until then no outside force is on the horizon to make it change.
What about the Palestinians? Do they have tactical options? Looking at Omar it seems clear enough within the confines of that film that joining the Aksa martyrs brigade and killing one soldier in a sniper attack was a poor tactical life move on the part of Omar and Amjad. Tarek is a special case because he gets to enjoy some personal power for a while. But none of them accomplish anything positive for Palestinians as a whole. What’s more, it’s clear they had no hope of accomplishing anything positive for Palestinians as a whole by what they did. It was an idiot move, plain and simple. Getting shot at while climbing the wall to visit your girlfriend, and being arbitrarily abused and forced to stand on a wobbly rock one-legged by roaming border guards, makes the choice understandable. It doesn’t make it better.
It was the Tareks in the West Bank that did the damage with the kidnapping and murder of three Yeshiva students. By all accounts their goal was to undermine a working relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. They have been spectacularly successful. It is the Tareks in Gaza that are firing the rockets. By all accounts the very purpose of their rocket attacks is to invite an Israeli invasion because sympathy for another 1,000 innocent Palestinians dead will raise the stock of Hamas, lower the popularity of the PA, and maybe bring the Egyptians back into the picture. These people are not Palestinian patriots. They are not freedom fighters. They are the few looking to enhance their power at the expense of innocents.
It's time to put an end to the open air prisons that are Gaza and the West Bank, but it's not going to happen while Hamas is intent on stockpiling rockets and firing them indiscriminately at Tel Aviv. In the meantime, the Israelis are a much too-compliant tool in this cynical game. This Operation Protective Edge will do nothing to protect Israel, but it will work to provide an edge to the worst elements within Hamas. That’s what I see when I look at Omar.