In its first two seasons, “Fauda,” the Netflix drama made in Israel, relatively succeeded in individualising the enemy and challenging some of the intensely politicised stereotypes, presenting the Palestinians as people just ‘like us’ with internal and external struggles. That left the spectators, especially in the mainstream Jewish collective, with mixed feelings about what it is that feeds animosity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Season three, however, (which was released earlier this year) seems to have reverted to the stereotypes and cliched narratives that “Fauda” producers repeatedly claimed to have challenged. Instead of gravitating Palestinians closer toward centre stage, this season has pushed them once again to the backstage.
This time, Fauda makers decided to leave the somewhat familiar realm of the West Bank and do something bold. They sent the Israeli undercover commandos on a daring mission into the heart of the Gaza Strip.
The season follows a clear, easily distinguishable storyline that evolves over the course of twelve episodes. Doron is now struggling with familial issues. He neglects his son and becomes a father figure to Bashar, a young Palestinian boxer from Hebron. Unaware of Doron’s true identity, Bashar unintentionally enables the assassination of his Hamas cousin. Bashar – assisted by his father – seeks redemption by kidnapping two Israeli hikers and smuggles them into Gaza. The Israeli commando unit is then sent into Gaza to retrieve the captured Israelis and eliminate Hamas’ most wanted man, Hani Al-Jabari. Throughout, Doron feels he’s the reason Bashar turned to violence.
Gaza in Season Three is an imagined dystopia with an enemy closer to the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan than it is to Palestine. The visual and conversational representations seem to focus almost entirely on the radicalisation of Gaza.
As the camera wanders the streets, you see anxious and hyper alert policemen (why?), women covered head to toe, and then there’s the policeman riding a technical Toyota vehicle with a heavy-calibre machine gun mounted on it, almost news footage from Afghanistan. From the outset and throughout, someone unfamiliar with the situation might assume that Hamas and Palestinian society are two entities that exist separate from each other, if not against each other. Something similar to Al-Qaeda in the Afghani Tora Bora mountains or the foreign Daesh Jihadis in Iraq’s Mawsil — a foreign terrorist entity without local roots or relevant ideology.
The Israeli unit enters Gaza through the sea. Awaiting them on the shore is a Hamas collaborator who upon arrival hands them Palestinian ID cards. This was the first of many absurd moments. Israel is technically involved in the issuing of Palestinian ID cards/passports and has a record of all Palestinians who hold them. It seems odd that the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security) still needed Palestinians to obtain these IDs for them. Was it an attempt to convince the spectators that Palestinians possess full autonomy and, ergo, the occupation is irrelevant? Or, is it just ignorance?
From this moment on, a series of encounters with the locals turns into a bizarre, if not surreal, production of absurdity. On one occasion, protagonist Doron Kavillio, who apparently has mastered Palestinian culture and language in the West Bank, enters a shop greeting the young lady inside with an English ‘hi’ and finishing by calling her ‘habibi.’
‘Habibi’ means my love or dear, and admittedly it’s over-used among Arabs. But only Arabs of the same gender. Addressing a strange woman as ‘habibi’ would immediately be interpreted as a romantic gesture, if not harassment. In the real conservative Gaza, Doron wouldn’t have seen the light of day following such a social transgression.
As Doron engages the shopkeeper, his two colleagues, Eli and Sagi, are approached by a suspicious Palestinian police officer who asks them where they are from. It turns out, they’re businessmen from Hebron and are in Gaza to get married. Not only is the assumption that Palestinians from the West Bank can casually travel to Gaza unrealistic, it reflects the ignorance of one of the most fundamental human rights violations in Palestinian life, namely the severely-restricted mobility.
A little inquiry by the writers to Israel’s ministry of interior or certain Israeli NGOs would’ve revealed that thousands of Palestinian families have applied for family reunion permits between Gaza and the West Bank. Only in exceptional cases, marriage excluded, can Palestinians from Gaza travel to the West Bank and vice versa. Do the “Fauda” producers and writers know that Israel banishes West Bank activists to Gaza as well?
You’re Bad, Therefore I’m Good
Never mind “Fauda”’s cultural inaccuracies, pay a little attention to the twisted ways through which the Israeli unit, despite their ostensibly negative traits, are presented in a positive light. Season Three doesn’t try to reinvent or polish Doron and his team, they – as in the previous two seasons and perhaps more so – are bullies with boundless righteous entitlement to protect the State of Israel. They’re flawed and fallible like everyone else. But they are still heroised, not through their righteous acts, but by virtue of their efficiency and professionalism vis-a-vis the inefficiency and, perhaps, clumsiness of the Palestinian fighters in Gaza.
Like Rambo III versus the Red Army, being severely outnumbered and logistically disconnected, the Unit still manages to defeat Hamas’ nokhba (elite), who – like the Empire’s stormtroopers in Star Wars – can’t shoot straight and end up dying in the dozens. As a spectator unfamiliar with the actual intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, your immediate impression might be that the Israeli commandos are efficient and dedicated and Israel’s intelligence is formidable. I doubt you’ll be impressed by the ‘Talibanised’ ideology and questionable morality, let alone the poor performance of the Palestinian fighters.
This leads one to wonder, is this the same nokhba that set the Shin Bet in a panic mode early in the series? It turns out, they’re clumsy and poorly trained. Why fear them then? The writers were perhaps caught between the desire to emphasise the Palestinian threat and therefore justify the controversial behaviours of the Israeli commandos, and the narcissistic need to preserve an image of Israeli superiority.
Downplaying and somewhat ridiculing Palestinian performance in Season Three emphasises and further legitimises the tropes of hierarchal victimhood which dominated the first two seasons. Both sides are victims of the conflict. But despite being socially dysfunctional and personally scarred, the Israeli commandos are heroically committed to the cause. Palestinian victims, on the other hand, are plagued with greed, collaboration, and mindless miscalculation that almost always backfires internally and against the cause. Fighting for Palestine is a vendetta and Palestinian sacrifices are driven only by despair. Bashar becomes a Hamas operative not because he’s committed to Palestine, but because he wants to avenge his father. It might be easy to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into personal vendettas when you possess the means to assassinate, kill, and bomb at will. This option isn’t available to Palestinians.
Much of “Fauda”’s story comes from the media and is based on several Shin Bet reports. The film crew is also logistically and technically supported by the IDF. “The IDF really helped us. They gave us helicopters, and we worked together closely,” explained Yaakov Daniel, who plays Eli, the Unit’s sniper.
So, it’s logical to assume that on top of being part of the hasbara machine, “Fauda” also reflects the culture and perceptions inside Israel’s security apparatus. The depiction of Gaza as a remote black hole, if anything, reveals some of Israel’s security and strategic failure in the Strip. Emphasising the formidability of Israel’s intelligence (undeniable in many cases), can be seen as an effort to overcompensate for such a failure.
The story and characters in “Fauda” resemble the 2006 capture of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit by Palestinian fighters in a complex cross-border operation. The commander of Hamas’ military wing in “Fauda” is Hani Al-Jabari. The leader of operation Gilad Shalit in 2006 was Ahmed Al-Jabari, Hamas’ military commander. The fictional Al-Jabari and the real-life one share a similar background, both speak Hebrew, and both lost family members in Israeli assassination attempts. Ahmed Al-Jabari, for instance, lost his eldest son and three of his relatives when Israeli gunships bombed his house in 2004. He was instrumental in giving Hamas a quantum leap in terms of weapon and cyber technology, successfully transforming the Movement from a group of resistance cells into a semi regular army. “Fauda”’s Al-Jabari is portrayed as a similar mastermind (with the additional Hollywood mafia-like sleaze, of course), whose sophisticated technological and military techniques failed to save him from the superior Shin Bet. The main difference however is that following Shalit’s capture, Israel bombed Gaza’s infrastructure and killed nearly 200 people. “Fauda” chose a more righteous mode of intervention that would eventually lead to the release of the captured Israelis without shedding much innocent blood.
Gilad Shalit remained in captivity in Gaza till 2011 and was finally exchanged for nearly one-thousand Palestinian prisoners. The ‘deal,’ a resounding political success for Palestinian factions and supported by the majority of Jewish-Israelis, was received in Israel’s security bodies as ‘unavoidable humiliation.’ The frantic attempts to assassinate Ahmed Al-Jabari afterwards were seen as a way to reinstate Israel’s military honour.
The real-life Al-Jabari was assassinated in 2012. The fictional Hani Al-Jabari is assassinated at the end of the season. Real-life Al-Jabari, from a Palestinian perspective, died a hero. But “Fauda”’s Al-Jabari died as an accomplice, who lied about the death of his daughter and decided to sell out everyone to try and save his and her life. He was finished off by Bashar himself after he had been injured in the crossfire between the typically incompetent Palestinian gunmen and the efficient Israeli commandos.
“Fauda”, from a psychological perspective, sought to reinstate Israel and the IDF’s self-confidence, ego, and, above all, power of deterrent that were compromised in Gaza. Conveniently reconstructing and reimagining history and geography is one way to do it.
“Fauda” remains within the broad parameters of Israel’s new cinema, one that rode on the wave of the new historiography in the late 1980s. It is undoubtedly a departure from the cliched image of the enemy as lurking silhouettes as in the Yishuv time (pre-state) or angry mob resembling the native Americans in the Hollywood Westerns in the 1960/70s. The success of the first two seasons, however, encouraged the series producers, by virtue of over-excitement or simply shortage of ideas, to get carried away. In so doing, they committed multiple cultural felonies and embarrassing geopolitical inaccuracies. More importantly, it revealed numerous ideological tendencies that have long characterised the so-called liberal Zionism. Because Israel was a result of an explicit ideology, rather than the product of a kind of historical accretion over centuries like other nations, it might not be realistic to expect a meaningful departure from the master-narrative – even if one claims to be liberal.
Season Three has hidden the occupation deep in the raw violence between two ostensibly ‘equal enemies,’ deceivingly reintroducing the concept of two ‘equal’ ideas of justice that the late Jewish-Israeli writer Amos Oz coined. Oz saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “…a clash between total justice and total justice.” He purported to look beyond the stereotypes of the conflict and to share aspirations for both Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, seeing equal validity in their conflicting claims. But ‘equal justice’ is philosophically and politically problematic. It implies that Jewish-Israelis and Palestinians should be held equally accountable– but in a largely asymmetrical conflict characterised by settler-colonial dimensions. No form of political correctness or claims of fair representation of the Palestinian narrative by “Fauda” producers can deny those facts. An accurate representation of Palestinian lives in Gaza will inevitably mean condemning Israel, a prospect that even liberal Zionists aren’t comfortable with.
If “Fauda” producers are truly concerned with presenting a balanced picture of the conflict more than they are with conducting a propaganda campaign for Israel, they should at least hire Palestinian writers. A Palestinian will at least inform them that simply throwing a Palestinian kuffiyeh (headgear) on one’s shoulder doesn’t automatically make him an ‘Arab.’ A Palestinian will save them the cultural embarrassment and help them conceal the casual racism.