It all started at the beginning of the first Intifada, back in 1988: B.Z. Goldberg, an American journalist, was filming clashes between Palestinians “shebab” (youths) throwing stones and Israeli soldiers shooting tear-gas grenades in a street in Gaza.
Playing cops and robbers
“We were in the middle”, explains B.Z Goldberg, “and as I was looking around trying to make sure my team was not in the firing line of either side, I saw an amazing scene in a side alley. A group of young Palestinian children were playing a sort of cops and robbers -- half of the children were playing “Palestinians”, and the other half the “Israelis”.
The children representing the “Israelis” arrested a group of “Palestinians”, put them against a wall, yelled at them, and slapped them about. I was stunned, but alas I did not turn my camera on them. For me the events on the street were the news, the children were after dinner conversation”.
Seven years later, B.Z. Goldberg met Justine Shapiro, director and presenter of films for Lonely Planet on Travel Channel USA. Born in South Africa and living in the USA, she is married to Carlos Bolado, a Mexican film editor. After long discussions, the team decided to shoot a documentary film which would “explore the Middle East conflict and the prospects for peace by drawing the viewers into the hearts and minds of Palestinian and Israeli children”.
Representing the major forces involved
“We had a “shopping list”, explains B.Z. Goldberg who came to Paris to present the film at the “7th Rencontres Internationales de Cinema”. “We wanted children who represent the major forces involved. We needed a Palestinian refugee child whose father was in prison, since it is such a commonplace situation. We also needed some religious young Palestinian and a supporter of Hamas -- since they are so visible on the street.
As far as the Israelis were concerned, we wanted a settler, because although they are a minority group -- there are about 200.000 in the West Bank -- they are a majority faction in terms of power. We also wanted a religious child as well as the child of liberal Israeli parents. We were looking for children old enough to be articulate, but young enough not to be self-conscious. Finally we wanted children who would be interested in us and a film that it would take a long time to shoot”...
It took them almost five years to produce the film, but the result is stunning. For 90 minutes the audience is captivated by seven children --Mahmoud, Faraj and Sanabel, the three Palestinians, and Moishe, Shlomo, Yarko and Daniel, the four Israelis. All the children were aged between 8 and 12 at the beginning of the film and teenagers by the time it was completed.
Living in worlds apart
What makes the story so fascinating is that these children all live within 20 minutes drive of each other -- in Jerusalem or in the West Bank -- but yet they occupy differents worlds and would probably never have met if the film “Promises » had not brought them together.
Of course, children frequently mirror the society they live in and sometimes act and speak like their parents but they also discuss their own thoughts: “We did not want to film children behaving like parrots”, explains B.Z. Goldberg. When they watched the film their parents were frequently amazed to discover how their children were behaving and speaking .
At first, the film presents the seven children’s lives separately.
Mahmoud is the son of a Palestinian who runs a coffee shop in East Jerusalem. Although he helps his father in the shop, Mahmoud says he is not allowed to drink coffee; but adds that he does sometimes, secretly, at his grandmother’s house. He goes on to note: “The Jews say this is their land... How could it be, when the Koran says that Prophet Mohammed went to the sky from al Quds”...
Shlomo is the son of an American rabbi who now lives in West Jerusalem. The camera follows him on his way to the Western Wall, where Shlomo says, “If Saddam bombs Israel, he will never bomb Jerusalem, because it is also his holy place”. The next frame shows Shlomo in the yeshiva where he studies from 7.30 am until 7.30 pm. Shlomo explains why the students swing on their seat while reciting the Torah: “People who study the Torah are like candles, always moving”.
Sanabel is a sweet little girl who lives in the refugee camp of Deheishe, 20 minutes from Jerusalem. The camp is home to some 11.000 refugees. Sanabel is a member of a folklore group which sometimes travels abroad interpreting the story of the Palestinian people through traditional dances.
Children like Sanabel are the grand children or the great-grand children of the 700.000 Palestinians who fled their homes in 1948. “The Jews kicked us out of our own villages and put us in camps”, explains Sanabel. “In our family we have our own bed, but in other families sometimes seven people live in one room, and two or three people sleep in one bed”, she adds.
Sanabel’s father is a journalist, a cadre of the PFLP, who has spent two years in jail without trial. “I feel happy when I get a letter from my father”, begins Sanabel but then she cannot go on and begins to weep.
Faraj also lives in Deheishe. He tells the story of his friend Bassem: “He threw a stone, and an Israeli soldier killed him. I wanted to cut that soldier in two, to shoot him or to blow him up to avenge Bassem”. The camera follows Faraj to the site of Bassem’s grave a year after the incident: “Of course I throw stones, everybody does; the Intifada nearly liberated Palestine”, he says with conviction.
Moishe is the son of a settler; he lives in the settlement of Beit El, also 20 minutes from Jerusalem. “God promised us the land”, he says, “and the Arabs came and took it from us. When I grow up, I want to be an army commander; I will be the first religious commander in chief”. The camera follows Moishe riding his bicycle inside the small settlement surrounded by a fence; he reaches a shooting range where soldiers practice: “We fight because this land is ours”, says Moishe, adding: “If I could make my own future, I would make all the Arabs fly away”.
Yarko and Daniel are twins, the children of liberal Israelis living in West Jerusalem. They go to school by bus but confess they are scared of bombs and jump off their bus with relief. First we watch the two children with their grandfather discussing his departure from Poland and the Shoah. One of the twins asks: “Do you believe in God”? The obviously embarrassed grandfather answers: “I don’t believe God could have watched all this and done nothing”. Then the camera follows the twins at the Wailing Wall. It is clear that these two boys, educated in a secular family, have little to do with religion and are “scared by these guys” -- the religious Jews who dance and yell at the Wall. “I would rather visit an Arab village than be here”, says Daniel.
The twins are very interested in sports and are going to play in a volley ball championship. One of them scribbles a few words on a piece of paper -- the wish to win the championship -- and puts it in between two stones in the Wall.
The camera travels back and forth between East and West Jerusalem, between the refugee camp and the settlements in the West Bank, moving easily through the checkpoints that prevent the Palestinians from the West Bank from travelling to a city which is only a few minutes from their home. The camera also takes in Ashkelon, where Sanabel goes with her family for the bi-monthly visit to her father in prison.
The film crew was not allowed inside the jail, but nevertheless filmed one of the most poignant scenes of this film outside its walls. Israeli soldiers guarding the gate of the jail try to tell the crowd of visitors to move back, but nobody understands their commands, which are spoken in Hebrew. One of the soldiers shouts: “Is there anyone here who speaks Hebrew and Arabic”?Nobody answers. The conclusion is clear: How can there be peace, how can there be even a dialogue, if there is no common language between the two sides?
To whom belongs this land?
While during the first part of the film the children are shown in their own environments -- two words totally différent and apart -- slowly a dialogue of a kind begins on screen on a vital issue: who owns the land?
The children’s answers show a political awareness, rare in those so young. Moishe, the settler, is clear. “When an Arab sees me, he thinks I am one of those who took his land. They think it is their land, and we think it is ours; we know it is ours”. To prove it, Moishe unrolls a Torah and reads: “God said to Abraham I will give to you and your descendants all the land of Canaan”.
Mahmoud, who supports Hamas, responds: “The land is not for Israel; it’s for the Arabs; this is my land: I was born and raised here, they have no right to take it”.
Shlomo, the yeshiva student, says: “I understand, they were thrown out of here 50 years ago, and they feel very small”.
Daniel, the liberal Israeli boy, observes: “I think this is our country; they think it is also theirs. There was a war and we conquered it. I don’t know what to do know. We have to really think about it and have the whole world discuss it. The smartest people in the world should decide about Jerusalem”.
Sanabel has this to say: “The Jewish people still occupy our land, they arrest people and put them in prison; it is wrong. There is no peace now. Jerusalem is 20 minutes from my house but I have never been there. I want to go and pray in Jerusalem, I want to see the Dome of the Rock, and see what is inside”.
Moishe, the settler quips: “I would never return Jerusalem, God forbid. I would clear out all the Arabs from the Mount of Olives and all Jerusalem”. He speaks movingly about the death of his friend Ephraim, a child killed by a bullet in the head -- a wednesday afternoon while driving with his mother who died later at the hospital. Moishe takes us to the grave and reads out the inscription: “Murdered with his mother by terrorists”. “He was murdered , says Moishe, and I have the proof, it is written on the grave”. “God will avenge his blood”.
Faraj responds with his own personal tale of woe: “I have proof that I own this land and that I have the right to build on it”. He looks at old documents, land deeds dating back to 1931 and 1942, and his grand mother shows him an old key -- the key of her house in the village of Ras Abu Ammar, now somewhere in Israel.
The film crew take Faraj and his grand mother to Ras Abu Amar -- driving a car with an Israeli plate ensures they can speed through checkpoints without any problem. The camera follows the old Palestinian woman and her young grandson walking in an abandoned garden, among rocks and bushes. The old lady points at a pile of rubble, and tells Faraj: “This is our house. The door was there”. She explains: “The Jews destroyed it so nobody could say we had a country”. “If you had been united, you would have defeated them”, Faraj tells his grand mother. And he plays with the old key while his grand mother prays on the ruins of her former home.
“It is my right to return to Abu Amar”, says Faraj, “our problem is not only the problem of the checkpoints and our freedom of movement. If not this generation, then the next one, will liberate Palestine and return to Abu Amar. If I cannot return I will give the key to my children and my grand children”.
The next scene shows a long parade of Israelis celebrating the “reunification day”, walking and dancing through Old East Jerusalem under the eyes of the local Palestinians, one of whom is Mahmoud, who lives there. “It is just provocation”, he says bitterly. “Jerusalem is not for the Jews. It is for Arabs. My hear wants to burst. I support Hamas and Hizbollah. They kill women and children, but it is for their country. The more Jews we kill, the fewer there will be, until they are almost gone”, Mahmoud concludes.
Can Arabs and Israelis be friends?
Given the depth of enmity between the children, the filmmakers wondered if there might ever be friendship between the two sides? “I don’t know any Arab children, and I don’t want to meet any”, said Moishe the settler.
Faraj thinks the same way: “Any Jew who sees me would think I am a terrorist. They think about their father and uncle who have been killed. We both think the same thing. So we each want to kill each other”... But one little girl of the group says: “No Palestinian child ever tried to explain the situation to Israeli children”... And one child says: “I believe all children are innocent”. They mull it over.
Until, one day, the impossible happens. Faraj asks B.Z. Goldberg: “Do you have the phone number of those twins in Jerusalem? I will talk to them”. And speaking in his class -room English, Faraj invites Yarko and Daniel to visit him in the camp. Driven by their anxious mother, the twins go to Deheishe, where they are greeted by an inscription on the wall “The land’s thirst will be quenched with blood” -- but at first they can’t read it, it is in Arabic. At the end of a wonderful day -- they talk and eat together, joke and play football, the twins even learn to throw stones with a sling -- Sanabel asks: “What do you think after one day together”?
Daniel, one of the Israeli twins, answers: “I used to think that anybody who liked Hamas was totally insane. Some of the children here like Hamas and now I can understand why. The graffiti might make me unconfortable, but I can understand it. If I were them, I would feel the same way”.
Faraj adds: “I feel torn inside. Part of me wants to connect with you, and part does not”. And suddenly he cries, “The twins will forget our friendship as soon as B.Z. leaves, and all our efforts will be in vain”.
What makes this film particularly poignant is that at no time it falls into sentimentality. Two years later, the filmmakers came back to interview the same children as teenagers. The miracle did not happen again. As Faraj predicted, their friendship ended with the film.
“It was not so easy to meet, with all the checkpoints and all the stuff”, says Yarko, one of the Israeli twins; “Faraj called us a lot but we did not return his calls; at the beginning we did. He did not understand -- he thought it was so simple to meet”. And Daniel adds: “We have our own concerns, volley, friends. I want peace, I really do, but I just don’t deal with it on a day to day basis.”
Meanwhile, Faraj is bitter: “I think the world has changed for the worst. One cannot begin to imagine a future because the life we live does not allow us to accomplish our dreams”. Sanabel, ever the optimist, concludes: “I would like to meet more Jewish people and children because many of them are innocent. Even some adults, they did not all encourage the occupation of our land. I would like to meet them because if we increase our interaction, our respect for one another will grow”...
The film ends with a scene in a maternity hospital, where Israeli and Palestinian fathers and mothers fond their new born babies who lie side by side in their cradles -- apparently the only place where Israelis and Palestinians meet peacefully and do the same gestures.. “We had different endings for the film”, explains B.Z. Goldberg; “we did not want a sweet end, like in Hollywood; the situation is difficult, depressive, and we wanted the film like it”.
However, with the devastation wrought by the second Intifada, the miracle is definitely over: B.Z. Goldberg was told not to go now to Deheishe camp to show his film -- he was even told not to call the children or their families by phone. The situation, the film crew were told, is much too dangerous.
(The Middle East magazine, May 2.002)
Pictures of Sanabel, Daniel and Faraj, by Justine Shapiro, courtesy of Promises Project
Droits de Reproduction strictement réservés © Chris Kutschera 2002