The first images one sees in the new documentary “This Is My Land … Hebron” are seemingly familiar ones, young men wearing balaclavas and throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. It is only as the scene continues that one realizes that these young men are also wearing tzitzit and shouting in Hebrew and English. Welcome to Hebron.
The film, directed by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, is part of this year’s edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which opens on June 16. As usual, the festival is a showcase of films that will disturb your sleep in ways no fictional horror film can imagine, but I doubt if any film in the festival is more powerful than “My Land.” The film is a model of concision and balance, guaranteed to provoke rage in all but the most somnolent or complacent viewer.
The situation in Hebron is this: In a city of 160,000 Palestinians, some 600 Jewish settlers live in the city center, cordoned off from the rest of the inhabitants and protected by a garrison of some 2,000 Israeli soldiers. In the aftermath of Baruch Goldstein’s infamous 1994 murder of 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Israeli government, fearing retaliation, created a cordon sanitaire around the settlers by uprooting hundreds of Palestinian businesses from the central market district and declaring the area off-limits to Palestinians. That temporary measure gradually became the status quo.
The filmmakers are remarkably even-handed in their treatment of the settlers. We see their audio-visual presentation on the history of Hebron, including a recounting of the 1929 pogrom by Arabs against local Jewish residents. There is little discussion of Goldstein’s actions and no mention of allegations alleged that settlers danced in the streets in celebration afterwards. The religious significance of Hebron is stressed, too. More than that, the settlers get a great deal of screen time, much of it uninterrupted.
Although the settlers’ official spokesman, David Wilder, is almost Madison Avenue-slick, the rest are seething cauldrons of rage and hate. And when we see them in their daily lives, their behavior frequently is repugnant, with mothers encouraging their children to throw stones at Palestinian kids, a group of adolescent girls chanting “Death to the Arabs” and hysterical settlers calling IDF members “Nazis” when they try to move illegal squatters. In an appalling way, that opening shot of the film sets the tone for much of what follows.
In a sense, the fulcrum on which the entire film, and the situation itself, pivots is the role of the IDF as buffer between the two communities (although, given the reality on the ground, “crash barrier” might better describe their position). IDF personnel are not allowed to arrest settlers who attack Palestinians, as Yehuda Shaul observes. Shaul, who was stationed in Hebron, now runs tours of the city for Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation organization of former IDF soldiers. The film accompanies him on one of his tours through what he describes as “’sterilized’ streets where only Jews can walk,” past graffiti reading “Arabs to the gas chambers.” (Interestingly, it is the mention of Shaul that causes a rare spike in Wilder’s emotional temperature, with the otherwise urbane spokesman suggesting that the ex-soldier be hanged as a traitor.)
If the film has a weakness, it is the failure of Amati and Natanson to explore more fully the state of the Palestinian majority. The older residents speak about the vibrant marketplaces that have been erased with a mixture of bewilderment and sad resignation, and the younger ones seethe quietly at the injustices they feel. But the ultimate image of their plight may be the silently weeping teenager, arrested and shackled for most a day in a cul-de-sac, who sits shaking his head with woeful incomprehension.
Hebron has been a scene of stalemate, of perpetual strangled rage for all its inhabitants since the first settlers moved into the Arab Park Hotel in 1968, posing as Swiss tourists. The picture that emerges from “This Is My Land … Hebron” is an entirely unpleasant one, a picture that does little credit to successive Israeli governments. There are few heroes here, only victims, perpetrators and, stuck between them, IDF forces who are being battered and harassed by the very people they are assigned to protect. It’s an impressive piece of filmmaking, but agonizing to watch.
The 22nd annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival will run from June 16-30 at the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th St.), with 19 films from a dozen countries, including 17 New York premieres. For more information visit www.FilmLinc.com, www.hrw.org/iff or call (212) 875-5601.