The Palestinians? Who are they? Such a people do not exist. This is the essence of what Israeli premier minister Golda Meir said back in the 1970s. Actually, she just expressed what much of the Western world felt. In those days, Palestinians were associated with plane hijackings and terror. Very few saw them as a legitimate national movement.
That, of course, has changed. The Palestine Liberation Movement, founded back in 1964, has gained international recognition. Now, though still living under occupation and scattered around the Middle East in refugee camps, few question the Palestinians’ claim to peoplehood. But the thing is, this has not come due to a sudden change of mind on the Palestinian side. Since they were evicted from their homeland in 1948, they have considered themselves a people. In spite of all allegations, they have always seen their fight as a legitimate struggle for freedom and justice. A fight for love and dignity.
That is a hard one to prove if you lack the documentation. Palestinian filmmaker #Mohanad Yaqubi#, one of the founders of the Ramallah-based outfit, #Idioms Films#, set out to do exactly that. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 most of the films made by the Palestinian revolution, as he calls it, were lost. So he took upon himself the painstaking effort to collect the bits and pieces, copies sent to international film festivals before 1982 and left there. What that material on hand, he rebuilt the collective memory of the Palestinian people. Yaqubi has created a marvelous documentary painting a picture of Palestinian feelings and thoughts, and one very different than the usual narrative.
Understanding the guerilla fighters
A newsreel from Jerusalem in 1930 tells us that there are three quarters of a million Arabs and 160,000 Jews in the country. The next clip is from February 1933. Hitler has come to power. The Jews of Eastern Europe have always been persecuted, but not in Germany. Under Hitler, however, antisemitism became institutionalized. Fast forward. The Palestinian tragedy unfolds in 1967 when the Israelis conquer the West Bank. The film includes long-forgotten pictures from the time, of refugees crossing the Jordan River at the Allenby Bridge.
More squalid refugee camps in barren landscapes follow this. People cook meals and tend to children under primitive conditions. One old newsreel mentions important instances of genocide – Vietnam, South Africa, Native Americans, Mozambique, and Nazi massacres. Without mentioning the Palestinian nakhba, the message and the connection are clear: armed resistance is not only legitimate, but it is also the only solution.
The important milestones are there. An eyewitness tells about the Israeli attack on the Jordanian village of Al Karameh in March 1968. More than 10,000 Israeli troops against 450 Palestinian guerilla fighters. «We fought for 15 hours,» says the voice. «Their tanks ran out of gas, we blocked the roads, they had many wounded and finally they retreated. This is a turning point in the history of Fatah and the guerilla war. This was the first confrontation, and we won. Afterward, thousands joined the movement and wanted to return to Palestine.»
The ongoing message is a return to the homeland with peace and dignity. There is no doubt that the Zionists are the enemy, but there is no enmity against the Jews as a people. «We do not want to throw them into the sea, but we do not want them to throw us into the desert,» says one of the fighters.
Munich 1972, when Palestinians killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympics, is retold along the same lines, and all of it is credible. There is footage showing the events as a reaction to September 1970, when the Jordanian regime shelled the refugee camps in and around the capital, Amman. Yasser Arafat and the PLO leadership were expelled by the Jordanians, and clearly so with American and Israeli backing. Yaqubi makes his point clear with pictures of other instances of Israeli aggression, and all of that puts the Munich massacre in a totally different light.
«What a strange thing. A country called Palestine without Palestinians in it. John Foster Dulles, one of those responsible for Vietnam, was rather clear about it. He said, as for the Palestinians, the old ones will die, and the young ones will forget,» we hear the outspoken actress Vanessa Redgrave say.
This is what the film is all about. In the end, Mohaned Yaqubi includes present-day pictures, e.g. a falafel seller in Ramallah with a large picture of Yasser Arafat at his stand. This is his way to convey his important message, that Arafat is more than a picture and a vague memory. People have a tendency to seek normalcy and forget because documentation is lacking, and this is what he has repaired in a sublime way through making this important film.
The ongoing message is a return to the homeland with peace and dignity.
It tells us the story, and it brings to our attention to a lot of nuances that might otherwise be forgotten or end up as stereotypes. In the beginning, there is footage from a classroom in a refugee camp, where the teacher tries to strengthen the national spirit and very symbolically Yaqubi ends his narrative in a classroom in modern-day Ramallah. The teacher tells her students about a tragic attack on a Jewish school in France, and in the same sentence, she reminds the youngsters about how their own people are being persecuted in the same way – a very relevant and important message from an outstanding film.