Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

Manual for military occupation

ISRAEL / An insight into how a foreign occupation works and the logic behind it.

There is a measured, almost unnoticeable, cold anger in veteran Israeli documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation.

Almost unnoticeable because Mograbi – who both directs and speaks directly to the camera as the film’s episodic narrator – uses a clever device to allow the historical facts, and dozens of interviews with former soldiers, to elucidate precisely what the half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip has done to both Palestinians and Israelis.

The clue to his device is in the film’s title. Mograbi, whose August: A Moment Before the Eruption won the Berlinale’s Peace Film Award in 2002, literally constructs a manual for the military occupation of the Palestinian lands from the facts.

Part history lesson and part compelling personal confession (by a total of 38 interviewees who saw military service in the occupied territories for the Israeli Defence Force) going back to 1967 when they were seized – and held in defiance of a later UN resolution, The First 54 Years, is studious in eschewing displays of raw emotion. Mograbi, a long-time critic of Israeli government policy, lets the facts speak for themselves.

The First 54 Years-Avi Mograbi-still3
The First 54 Years, a film by Avi Mograbi

The first 20 years

Mograbi lays the groundwork out in the first of three sections, covering the first 20 years that concluded with the 1987 Oslo Peace Accord. This was designed to pave the way for Palestinian self-determination. It is here that he introduces the basic tenet of the Israeli occupation that helps explain its longevity: it is all about seizing territory and planting settlers on Palestinian lands.

The director does little to explain why successive Israeli government should choose a policy so clearly designed to infuriate the Palestinian population and guarantee to sustain a long-running conflict, but perhaps he understands it is a given that a perpetually insecure state such as Israel, established in trauma on land it laid claim to with Biblical (and post-war political) reasoning, should forever seek protective barriers from the enemies that surround it.

The First 54 Years, is studious in eschewing displays of raw emotion.

For a policy that was barely enunciated from the beginning, Mograbi is at pains to explain in his, point-by-point, line by line, reasoning that without it the manual for military occupation would have been discarded within a few years.

That seizing land and altering the demographic balance (in territories that initially had just a million inhabitants – and more than 250,000 fled the fighting or were overseas working in 1967) is at the very core of the occupation won’t surprise most international viewers. That Israel has only in recent years fully come to understand that futility of its policy (even if this is never admitted) is reflected both in the withdrawal a few years ago from the Gaza Strip and in the population of the West Bank today: 5 million Palestinians and, in more than 250 settlements, some 600,000 settlers.

In interviews with those who served, Mograbi treads lightly, rarely challenging statements that at times nudge towards self-serving (with passive statements about violent events) and at others reflect evident shame. That all the participants, including former senior figures such as Zvi Barel, the deputy military governor of Hebron, in the West Bank 1971-76, are members of Breaking the Silence – an organization of former IDF soldiers committed to telling the truth about the occupation – is noteworthy.

The First 54 Years-Avi Mograbi-still1
The First 54 Years, a film by Avi Mograbi

Failed and failing

There are no Palestinian voices heard directly in this film, although an abundance of archive footage shows their suffering and – towards the end – a series of repulsive ‘trophy’ photos of IDF troops posing with the bodies of slain Palestinians, conveys the message about what Mograbi sees as an utterly failed and failing policy clearly enough.

The three-part structure offers a map to the shape of the occupation: the early efforts to divide and rule; the later policy to offer hope of self-determination only for the dashing of those hopes to provoke the first uprising, or Intifada, in a section the director dubs «loss of control»; to the current situation, effectively existing for the past two decades of «total loss of control».

The testaments of those men who enforced the policies employed, early on the enticements – work permits; later the suppression – collective punishments and the use of informers or «stinkers» as IDF men call them, help bring the occupation into fuller focus.

There are no Palestinian voices heard directly in this film, although an abundance of archive footage shows their suffering

There is a sense of resignation in some of the testimonies; men who understand they were young and misinformed. There is little regret. One man, who served in the Gaza Strip in 1987, can’t look the viewer straight in the eye as he recalls: «All of my memories are to do with that [wooden military] club. I went into a house, not alone but I shall only talk about myself, and I started hurting a father, a girl, a boy, a mother…I tore the house apart and did not stop.»

Political bets that eventually time would put an end to Palestinian and that the facts on the ground – the settlers and settlements – would eventually quell international criticism, have proven wrong.

When a Jewish settler shot dead 29 Palestinians at prayer (at a holy site venerated by both Jews and Muslims) in the mid-1990s, things were already spinning out of control, but the wave of suicide bombings that brought death and mayhem to Israel itself provoked a reaction that Mograbi notes was unparalleled in its cruelty.

The First 54 Years-Avi Mograbi-still2
The First 54 Years, a film by Avi Mograbi

«to shoot»

The memories of those older men who served longer ago of bashing heads, chucking unruly youths into wire cages to cool off, or turning houses upside down, begin to look gentle in comparison with what more recent members of the IDF witnessed, or participated in.

After the launching of the second Intifada in 2000, the occupation descends into outright violence and war. Any pretense of working with the Palestinians disappears. Men recall military briefings with no mention made of sparing civilian lives, or of giving sufficient warnings before opening fire. The only order, one says, was «to shoot». Another recalls his company commander deciding to prevent attacks on the new border wall by «blowing someone’s leg off».

«There comes a moment in a war of this sort when both parties lose the hope of defeating the other,» says the laconic Mograbi, drawing on his cigarette. «Both you and the insurgents that confront you will resort to means the sole purpose of which is to cause pain, to shed blood. It is a very undesirable moment, but it has to be taken into account.»

The First 54 Years concludes with the withdrawal from Gaza and the increasing violence witnessed since. It offers no solutions and ends with footage of IDF soldiers cheering as Palestinian homes are demolished, as one soldier is heard to say: «That was beautiful.»

* The First 54 Years will screen in its World Premiere at the 71st Berlinale in the Forum section.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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