On 11 January, Israel’s Lod District Court ruled against Palestinian film-maker Mahmoud Bakri, and ordered him to pay hefty compensation to an Israeli soldier who was accused, along with the Israeli military, of carrying out war crimes in April 2002 in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.
As reported by Israeli and other media, the case seemed to be a relatively simple matter of defamation of character and so on. To those familiar with the massive clash of narratives which emanated from the singular event known to Palestinians as the “Jenin Massacre”, the court’s verdict not only has political undertones, but also historical and intellectual implications.
Bakri is a Palestinian born in the village of Bi’ina, near the Palestinian city of Akka, now located in Israel. He has been paraded repeatedly through Israeli courts and censured heavily in the local mainstream media simply because he dared to challenge the official discourse about the violence in the Jenin refugee camp nearly two decades ago.
The director’s documentary Jenin, Jenin is now officially banned in Israel. The film, which was produced only months after the conclusion of this particular episode of Israeli state violence, did not make many claims of its own. It largely opened up a rare space for Palestinians to convey, in their own words, what had befallen their refugee camp when units of the Israel Defence Forces, with air cover provided by fighter jets and attack helicopters, pulverised much of the camp, killing scores of people and wounding hundreds more.
Israel claims to be a democracy, remember. For it to ban a film, regardless of how unacceptable its content is to the authorities, is wholly inconsistent with any definition of freedom of speech. To ban Jenin, Jenin, indict the Palestinian filmmaker who made it, and then compensate those accused of carrying out war crimes is outrageous.
The background of the Israeli decision can be understood within two contexts: one, Israel’s regime of censorship aimed at silencing any criticism of its occupation and apartheid; and two, Israel’s fear of a truly independent Palestinian narrative.
Israeli censorship dates back to the inception of the State of Israel atop the ruins of the Palestinian homeland in 1948. The country’s founding fathers painstakingly constructed a convenient story regarding the birth of the state, erasing Palestine and the Palestinians almost entirely from their narrative. The late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said had this to say in his essay “Permission to Narrate”: “The Palestinian narrative has never been officially admitted to Israeli history, except as that of ‘non-Jews,’ whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.”
To ensure the erasure of the Palestinians from Israel’s official discourse, the state’s censorship has evolved to become one of the most elaborate and well-guarded programmes of its kind in the world. Its sophistication and brutality has reached the extent that poets and artists can be put on trial and sentenced to terms in prison for merely challenging Israel’s founding ideology, Zionism, or penning poems deemed offensive to Israeli sensibilities. While Palestinians have borne the brunt of Israel’s ever-vigilant censorship machine, some Israeli Jews, including human rights organisations, have also suffered.
The case of Jenin, Jenin is not one of routine censorship, though. It is a statement, a message, to those who dare give voice to oppressed Palestinians and allow them to speak directly to the world. These Palestinians, in the eyes of Israel, are certainly the most dangerous, as they demolish the layered, elaborate yet fallacious official Israeli discourse, regardless of the nature, place or timing of any contested event, starting with the Nakba (“Catastrophe”) of 1948.
My first book, Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion, was published almost simultaneously with the release of Jenin, Jenin. The book, like the documentary, aimed to counterbalance official Israeli propaganda through honest, heart-rending accounts from the survivors of the violence brought down upon the refugee camp. While Israel had no jurisdiction to ban the book, pro-Israel media and mainstream academics either ignored it completely or attacked it ferociously.
Admittedly, the Palestinian counter-narrative to the dominant Israeli version, whether on the “Jenin Massacre” or the Second Intifada which was still underway at the time, was humble, and largely championed through individual efforts. Still, even such modest attempts at narrating a Palestinian version were considered dangerous, and rejected vehemently as irresponsible, sacrilegious or anti-Semitic.
Israel’s true power — but also its Achilles heel — is its ability to design, construct and shield its own version of history, despite the fact that the narrative is hardly consistent with any reasonable definition of the truth. Within this modus operandi, even meagre and unassuming counter-narratives are threatening, for they poke holes in an already baseless intellectual construct.
Bakri’s story of Jenin was not attacked relentlessly and eventually banned simply as the outcome of Israel’s censorship, but because it dared to blemish Israel’s diligently fabricated historical sequence, starting with a persecuted “people with no land” arriving in the alleged “land with no people”, where they “made the desert bloom”. These are two of Israel’s most potent founding myths.
Jenin, Jenin is a microcosm of a people’s narrative that successfully shattered Israel’s well-funded propaganda. It sent (and still sends) a message to Palestinians everywhere that even Israel’s falsification of history can be challenged and defeated.
In her seminal book, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Linda Tuhiwai Smith brilliantly examines the relationship between history and power. She asserts that, “History is mostly about power… It is the story of the powerful and how they became powerful, and then how they use their power to keep them in positions in which they can continue to dominate others.” It is precisely because Israel needs to maintain the current power structure that Jenin, Jenin and other Palestinian attempts at reclaiming history have to be censored, banned and punished.
Israel’s targeting of the Palestinian narrative is not simply official contestation of the accuracy of facts or of some kind of fear that the “truth” could lead to legal accountability. The colonial state cares nothing at all about facts and, thanks to Western support, it remains immune from international prosecution. Rather, it is about erasure; erasure of history, of a homeland, of a people: the people of Palestine.
Nevertheless, a Palestinian people with a coherent, collective narrative will always exist, no matter the geography, the physical hardship and the political circumstances. This is what Israel fears above all else.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.