Israel’s campaign against Palestinian filmmaker Mohamed Bakri’s film Jenin Jenin is part of a twisted logic that demands that Palestinians apologise for Israeli crimes

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The story began in April 2002, when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) invaded the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin, levelled it to the ground, killed more than 70 people and buried civilians alive in their demolished homes and the smoldering buildings.

During Operation Defensive Shield, the Israeli name for the Jenin massacre, the IDF refused to allow journalists, human- rights and humanitarian organisations into the camp. Jenin remained sealed off for days after the invasion.

Bakri was among the first to enter the camp after the massacre and collect oral testimonies from local residents. His film Jenin Jenin tells the story of the ruined camp and the massacre’s survivors.

On 23 June 2002, the film’s executive producer, Iyad Samoudi, was killed in Alyamoun by Israeli soldiers at the end of filming. Bakri himself continues to receive death threats. The war on Jenin Jenin continues to this very day.

Israel’s campaign against Jenin Jenin is not about the film’s politics. Anyone who has seen the film will have been struck by Bakri’s capacity to maintain a high degree of professionalism in the midst of the ruins of the camp. Neither ideology nor politics is allowed into the narrative. Bakri himself does not talk in the film, but instead allows the residents of the camp to tell their own stories. His commitment to truth is the only form of narrative operating in the film.

The film has won two awards: Best Film at the Carthage International Film Festival in 2002 and the International Prize for Mediterranean Documentary Filmmaking and Reporting. Even so, it has been banned by the Israeli Film Board, and the Israeli high court has labelled it a “propagandistic lie”. Writers in the Israeli press have rushed to classify it as anti-Semitic.

This has not been the end of the story. In 2007, five Israeli soldiers who took part in the Jenin massacre sued Bakri for “emotional distress” even though the soldiers do not appear in the film. Their claim caused the Israeli court to demand that Bakri apologise to the soldiers and rework the film in such a way that it is “not offensive to the feelings of Israeli soldiers.” Bakri refused.

Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians has long been predicated on ensuring that Palestinian blood remains far cheaper than the “feelings” of its solders. Yet, we should remind ourselves that when Israel demands an apology from its victims, it is serious about it.

Violence against Palestinians is not only legitimate from the Israeli perspective, but it is also necessary. Israel’s form of rationality stands alone, and it has its own logic and morality. Israel’s demand that Bakri apologise for Israel’s crime is thus not merely chutzpah or audacity. It is also an expression of a colonial mentality.

Liberal writers in Israel criticise the hypocrisy of a state that continues to bill itself as the only democracy in the region, while at the same time banning people from telling the truth. Yet, one might wonder, isn’t it precisely this democracy that permits Israel to kill Palestinians and then to demand that they apologise when they lament Israel’s victims? Isn’t it the oxymoron of a Jewish-democratic state that enables Israel’s soldiers to kill Palestinians whenever they please and then to feel “offended” when they are reminded of their crimes?

How else can one make sense of the various laws passed by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, that affect Palestinians, starting with the Nakba law and continuing through the loyalty law, the religious conversion law, the law regulating admission to Jewish-only communities, and the law against foreign boycotts of the settlements? What is Israel’s democracy other than one that has been goaded into the service of a colonial enterprise built on ethnic hegemony?

If criticisms of Israel continue to revolve around its contemporary political hypocrisy without taking account of its colonial foundations, then such criticisms will be a waste of time. Occupation by its very nature is hypocritical, and it lives and breathes hypocrisy.

Criticisms of Israeli violence against the Palestinians should not be allowed to turn into wasted polemics or political exercises. We should not forget that Israel was founded on a racist colonialist mentality, and that violence is not subject to moral negotiation.

The team that made Jenin Jenin is neither the first, and nor will it be the last, to suffer in Israel’s campaign to terrorise Palestinian filmmakers, artists and activists whose struggle for truth can hardly keep pace with Israeli violence against the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and inside Israel itself.

Israel will continue its Sisyphean war on truth, and people like Bakri will continue to do their best to tell the world about it. This is where the struggle should begin.

“Massacring Truth” was the title used by an Israeli journalist to label Bakri. This identification of the victim with the act of massacring, a strategy so characteristic of Israel’s chutzpah and insistence on manipulating the truth, is part of Israeli attempts to reorder the world regardless of the evidence.

In this manipulation industry, the executors become the victims, and the victims become the executors. No wonder supposed systematic victimisation has become the founding narrative of Israel’s own political discourse.

The title should be reversed — “truth massacring” — to remind us that the truth cannot be manipulated forever. Another Arabic proverb comes to mind: “no right is ever lost as long as someone keeps demanding it.”

Seraj Assi, The writer is a PhD student in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University

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