Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

A symbol of policy

ISRAEL / The story of the eastern side of Hebron, a microcosm of a conflict and a test site for control throughout the West Bank.

Developed within the Tel Aviv CoPro market and premiered at this year’s DocAviv Festival, this international co-production is a chilling reminder of a city everybody had heard of but strangely disappeared from the world headlines at some point within the last two decades: Hebron. For centuries a thriving civilizational centre (its beginnings reached 18th cent BCE), the biggest city of the West Bank, where the Jews and Arab’s common father – Abraham, is buried, Hebron was put under the Israeli occupation in 1967. What happened since then and what is happening there is a focus of the H2: The Occupation Lab.

Richly illustrated with archival footage shot in Hebron in particular decades, featuring the city life, its residents, and political figures of both the Israeli and Arab sides, the film spotlight lies, however, on the Israeli military commanders – their approaches, reasoning, and lines of thinking about a task of controlling the city’s 300,000 Arab population.

H2: The Occupation Lab, a film by Idit Avrahami, Noam Sheizaf
H2: The Occupation Lab, a film by Idit Avrahami, Noam Sheizaf

Starting with good intentions

It all started with good intentions, in a nice and civic way – with almost a decade-long collaboration between the Israeli government and the Arab City Council. The initial aim was to create an occupation invisible to city residents, peacefully co-exist, and re-establish the moderate Jewish settlement within Hebron’s Palestinian population. In 1976, the Israeli government decided to organize free, democratic elections for the City Council. The elections, unexpectedly for the Israeli side, stirred a generational change within Arab political circles, which in turn threatened the Israeli – Arab political status quo, and made Israel interfere in the political election process. Since then, events went into a downward spiral leading to Arab protests and riots and the first open clash with the Jewish settlers, who actively and forcefully pacified the protesters, «assisting» the Israeli military. This controversial and highly questionable involvement of the Jewish settlers in military activity, later legitimized by the Jewish court sentence following the events, marked the beginning of a high-octane struggle between the settlers and the Palestinians. Encouraged by the ruling, the settlers have advanced to other parts of the Hebron old town, which further heightened the tension, necessitating more and more «protection» measures and policing.

The strife and disturbances lasted until the early 1990s when the Oslo Peace Agreement was close to resolving the situation. Yet, again – the reality took a different turn with a brutal and bloody attack of a Jewish settler on the Muslims praying in the Cave of Patriarchs, the place where Abraham is buried. Twenty-nine people were shot dead and over 100 wounded in bright light. The city was in deep trauma. Special military and policy measures were introduced to keep the peace, although they were addressed once more to the Arab population, who was forbidden to leave their houses for weeks. From then on, Hebron had been divided into two parts: fences, checking points, multiple military posts, and heavy gates controlling the movement of people through narrow streets. Some families have had to go through the checkpoint every time they left their house. The Israeli military has controlled Hebron’s Arab residents with regular middle-night raids, during which they count family members and check out their papers also of small children. In 2000, all these harsh measures resulted in the second uprising and heavy street fighting. One more time – the blood was everywhere.

All these events are being talked about in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone and with a prevailing sense of lack of responsibility for the development of the situation.

Total control

Since then, Hebron has turned into a city of «total control»: Palestinians cannot leave their houses freely, can move only by specially designated routes, the military night-raids are carried out five-six times per day, young men are being bounded, and seated with their eyes covered, on the street for hours. Once the Palestinians leave their houses, they cannot return, even if they still own the buildings. The military could shoot anyone on the street, and the Jewish settlers harassed their Arab neighbors consistently and openly. Nowadays, these «traditional» methods are starting to be supplemented with the use of new technologies: the military scans faces of the Hebron’s Arab population, including small children, creating new sophisticated means of controlling the occupied communities.

All these events are being talked about in a strikingly matter-of-fact tone and with a prevailing sense of lack of responsibility for the development of the situation. Everybody points to other groups or some unnamed outside forces, unable to clearly say what is right and wrong. Only a group of ex-Israeli soldiers, who served their time in Hebron after the second intifada, have the courage to show off and protest against the cruelty and unethical methods of treating the Palestinian residents. Palestinian tours through the city provide insightful information based on first-hand experiences. Yet, it all adds to the final picture of nowadays Hebron as a city changed into a terrifying museum of apartheid, where the everyday life of its Arab residents is filled with psychological and physical torture.


H2: The Occupation Lab leaves us in shock and deep thought about human nature – a traditional narration, presenting historical events unfolding in scope of over 50 years, well researched and richly documented from various points of view, once again proves its effectiveness in moving minds and hearts. In the words of one of the Israeli ex-soldiers, Hebron has become a symbol of the Israeli policy towards Palestinian citizens that is being implemented in all the occupied territories. Is there any way out of the reality of fences, gates, division, and firearms on the streets?

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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