By Ramzy Baroud
Israel’s Lod District Court last week ruled against Palestinian filmmaker Mahmoud Bakri, ordering him to pay hefty compensation to an Israeli soldier who was accused, along with the Israeli military, of carrying out war crimes in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank in 2002.
The case, as presented by much of the Israeli and other media, seemed as though it was dealing with typical legal matters such as defamation. However, to those familiar with the massive clash of narratives that emanated from that single event — known to Palestinians as the “Jenin Massacre” — the Israeli court verdict was not only political but also historical and intellectual.
Bakri, a native Palestinian born in the village of Bi’ina, has been repeatedly paraded in Israeli courts and censured by the mainstream Israeli media simply because he dared to challenge the official discourse on the events that transpired in the Jenin refugee camp nearly two decades ago.
Bakri’s documentary, “Jenin, Jenin,” is now officially banned in Israel. The film, which was produced only months after the conclusion of the violence, offered a rare opportunity for Palestinians to convey, in their own words, what happened when large units of the Israeli army, under the protection of fighter jets and attack helicopters, pulverized much of the camp, killing scores and wounding hundreds.
To ban a film, regardless of how unacceptable it may seem to the authorities, is wholly inconsistent with the concept of freedom of speech. But to ban “Jenin, Jenin,” indict the filmmaker and financially compensate those accused of carrying out war crimes is simply outrageous.
The background of the Israeli decision can be understood within two contexts: The Israeli regime’s censorship, which is aimed at silencing any criticism of its occupation and apartheid, and its fear of a truly independent Palestinian narrative.
Israeli censorship dates back to the very inception of the state of Israel atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland in 1948. The country’s founding fathers had painstakingly constructed a convenient story regarding the birth of Israel, almost entirely erasing Palestine and the Palestinians from their historical narrative. On this, late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said wrote in his essay “Permission to Narrate:” “The Palestinian narrative has never been officially admitted to Israeli history, except as that of ‘non-Jews,’ whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.”
To ensure the erasure of the Palestinians from the official Israeli discourse, Israeli censorship has evolved to become one of the most elaborate and well-guarded schemes of its kind in the world. Its sophistication and brutality has reached the extent that poets and artists can be tried in court and sent to prison for merely confronting Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, or penning poems that may offend Israeli sensibilities. While Palestinians have borne the brunt of the ever-vigilant Israeli censorship machine, some Israeli Jews, including human rights organizations, have also suffered the consequences.
However, the case of “Jenin, Jenin” is not one of routine censorship. It is a message to those who dare to give a voice to oppressed Palestinians, allowing them the opportunity to speak directly to the world. These Palestinians, in the eyes of Israel, are the most dangerous, as they have demolished the layered and elaborate, yet fallacious, official Israeli discourse, regardless of the nature, place or timing of any contested event, starting with the Nakba of 1948.
My first book, “Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion,” was published at about the same time “Jenin, Jenin” was released. This book, like the documentary, aimed to counterbalance the official Israeli propaganda with the honest, heart-rending accounts of the survivors of the massacre. While Tel Aviv had no jurisdiction to ban the book, the pro-Israeli media and mainstream academics either ignored it completely or ferociously attacked it.
Admittedly, the Palestinian counter-narrative, whether on Jenin or the Second Intifada, was humble and largely championed through individual efforts. But even such modest attempts were considered dangerous and vehemently rejected as irresponsible, sacrilegious or anti-Semitic.
Israel’s true power — but also its Achilles’ heel — is its ability to design, construct and shield its own version of history, despite the fact that its narrative is not consistent with any reasonable definition of the truth. Within this modus operandi, even meager and unassuming counter-narratives are threatening, for they poke holes in an already baseless intellectual construct.
Bakri’s story of Jenin was not relentlessly attacked and eventually banned as a mere outcome of Israel’s prevailing censorship tactics, but because it dared to blemish the country’s diligently fabricated historical sequence, starting with a persecuted “people with no land” who arrived at a supposed “land with no people,” where they “made the desert bloom.”
“Jenin, Jenin” is a microcosm of a people’s narrative that successfully shattered Israel’s well-funded propaganda, sending a message to Palestinians everywhere that even Tel Aviv’s falsification of history can be roundly defeated.
In her seminal book “Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples,” Linda Tuhiwai Smith brilliantly examines the relationship between history and power, asserting that “history is mostly about power.”
She wrote: “It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others.” It is precisely because Israel needs to maintain the current power structure that “Jenin, Jenin” and other Palestinian attempts at reclaiming history have to be censored and their creators punished.
Israel’s targeting of the Palestinian narrative is not a mere official contestation of the accuracy of facts or of some kind of Israeli fear that the “truth” could lead to legal accountability. Israel hardly cares about facts and, thanks to Western support, it remains immune from international prosecution. Rather, it is about erasure — the erasure of history, of a homeland, of a people.
A Palestinian people with a coherent, collective narrative will always exist, no matter the geography, the physical hardship and the political circumstances. This is what Israel fears most.