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Monday, May 16, 2005


Route 181: A Message of Truth and Reconciliation

Michel Khleifi and Eyal Sivan’s Route 181 is reminiscent of Marcel Ophuls' 1972 documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity in two ways: both are four and one-half hours in length, and both deal with the occupier and the occupied; Ophuls’ documentary dealt with oral histories of collaborators, resistance fighters, and of the apathetic of Vichy France, while Route 181 deals with the people on both sides of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. The stories that emerge from both documentaries are both personal and universal.

Route 181 refers to the UN Resolution from November 29, 1947, that partitioned Palestine, giving more land to the largely colonial Jewish minority than to the indigenous Arabs that comprised the majority. For two months in the summer of 2002 Khleifi and Sivan traversed this route, speaking to Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants along the way. They started in the Negev in the south, proceeded through the center, stopping at the border with Lebanon. The people whom they encounter speak of the past, the present, and the future.

The directors encounter an old woman and her son in the village of Masmyieh in the south. They are the only Palestinians left in a town that prior to 1949 was a Palestinian town. She is adamant that she will not leave despite plans by the government to demolish her house to expand a highway. Her handsome longhaired son speaks with an intensity that is sweetly compelling when he says that Jews say “Death to the Arabs,” all the time but if an Arab were to utter “Death to the Jews,” it would be considered an outrage. Frequent road signs that advocate that for Israel’s security Palestinians must transfer to Jordan document his sentiments. “Nothing,” the old woman says, “will force us to move.”

One Israeli interviewed says, “A good Arab is a dead Arab.” Kheleifi and Sivan often encounter hatred and denial from Israelis that they interview. An old Zionist whom they meet in the North reminisces about “Operation Broom,” in which the Arabs were swept out. He justifies this by saying that the Palestinians did not accept the partition plan, which allocated the majority of the land for a minority of colonists. The directors question, probe, trap. Do you know the story of the baby that two mothers claimed? How did Solomon determine who was the true mother? "Yes, yes," more than one Israeli professed. “I know.” The false mother demanded that the sword cut the baby but the true mother said for Solomon to give the baby to the false mother in order to save the baby.

This is the central metaphor of the documentary. It is evidently a dangerous message that the Holy Land should be united since Route 181 was deemed detrimental to “public order” in France. The Ministry of Culture gave in to pressure groups in 2004. It was scheduled to be shown twice at the largest documentary festival in Paris. It was cut to one screening. Truth is uncomfortable because it breaks down the myths that the so-called Israeli "pioneers" have packaged and conveyed to a naive and guilty West for fifty-seven years.

Truth that is unbearable for Palestinians and denied by many Israelis is told by a barber. The men in the barbershop in al- Lydd talk about the men who were taken to the mosque and massacred. This is how Palestine Remembered recounts the massacre:

“Soon after the city's occupation, the "Jewish Army" committed its biggest massacre in Palestine, which resulted in the murder of 426 men, women, and children. At least, 176 of these people were slaughtered in Dahmash mosque, which functioned as the city's main mosque.”

The barber recalls going to the mosque a couple weeks after the massacre and retrieving the bodies. Reminiscent of the current horrors of Fallujah, we learn that body parts fell off because bodies had decomposed from the heat.

We are presented with the surreal scene of Kansas Christian Zionists planting olive saplings under the tutelage of an American rabbi and her husband. With no sense of irony these Christian Zionists with southern accents pledge their fealty to Israel, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Israelis are represented by a government that has uprooted two thousand year old olive trees planted by the indigenous population and virtually made conditions so impossible for Palestinian Christians, the original stones, i.e., Semites who embraced the Christianity of the apostles, that they have emigrated in droves.

The directors probe; their questions unsettling in a world grown accustomed to Zionist propaganda, which has turned the Palestine-Israeli situation on its head. What village was there? What happened to its people? These questions are a refrain. “Do you know the term ‘banality of evil’ they ask a soldier. "Why do you talk to me as if I’m not human? Be polite," they admonish the barely grown soldiers.

Snippets of conversation: “I didn’t pay for this property; I received it,” says a Jewish engineer, who used to employ Gaza workers on his "received" property. “They shot us like rabbits,” says a woman who lives just four kilometers from her native village. She tells the tale to her children and grandchildren so that they won’t forget. She gives lie to the Israeli hope expressed in the adage, “The old will die, and the young will forget.”

Yet, in a northern Israeli town, Palestinian school children seem to have forgotten the past, debating whether they are Israeli or Palestinian while a woman from Tunisa, who lost her son in the Lebanese war longs to return to Tunisa. “We lived side by side in peace with the Arabs in Tunisa,” she says.

A regretful woman from Morocco says she was young when she bought into coming into Israel to live in a Jewish state when she participated in the illegal immigration of Jews to Israel. “Take a picture of the tree,” she says despairingly. “Not me.”

Two people claim the same land. But whose is the legitimate claim? The indigenous inhabitants? Or the bewildered Ethiopean Jews, who are welcomed in the immigration center by European Jews and serenaded by Russian musicians? They have a revived new language they must master before they can understand the bossy European woman who tells them in the strange tongue to dip their apples in honey and to drink their wine. Does the Iraqi Jew who owns a candy shop who remembers when there were Palestinian villages around have a right to this land? He reflects that there are some people who do not want peace. Do the gun-toting abrasive American teenagers have a right to this land? Does the Yemeni woman who owns a gas station who says that she hates Arabs have a right to this land? Jews have claimed their right to the land so often that westerners accept this claim, no questions asked. Over four hundred villages were decimated in order to cleanse the land of Arabs so that Jews from all over the world could come to Palestine, change their name, learn a language, and live on the smoldering ruins of someone else's property. This is the message that is so damning for the Zionist enterprise that pressure groups' claims of anti-Semitism cowed the Ministry of Culture in France to limit screenings of the film.

Eyal Sivan and Michel Khleifi through their probing questions and conversations with Palestinians and Israelis have undertaken the first step to what they maintain is “truth and reconciliation” for Palestine. The movie succeeds. It is undistributed but has played in over thirty film festivals. The DVD is available for just thirty Euros.

Khleifi and Sivan say that theirs was a labor of love, and it is evident throughout the film. Surely, this film, albeit undistributed, ranks as a great documentary. The universal message, which is shown graphically in the beginning when the map of Palestine is ripped apart along the demarcation line of 1947, and is re-emphasized by the Solomon metaphor, is that the only hope for Palestine is through truth, reconciliation, and unification.

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