No Way To Treat the Neighbours

Scene from Fauda. Doron Kabilio (Lior Raz) is in the centre.

Decades ago, in First Blood: Part II, the character John Rambo asked, “Do we get to win this time?” If the United States had won the war, Rambo would not have been invented to rescue fictional victory from real defeat. Because it lost, its filmmakers learned to profit from telling stories about successes that never happened.

Fauda falls into the same category of colonial storytelling. The show’s creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, view the show as non-ideological action entertainment based on contemporary reality. It is only “a TV show,” says Issacharoff, asking that critics confine themselves to the show’s technical elements rather than pursuing a more comprehensive understanding of its implications. But the production of political interpretations is inevitable and the showrunners’ resistance to them points even more forcibly towards their necessity.

The underlying project of Fauda is to provide an explanation for why the colonial project of West Bank occupation is not easy, why Palestinians keep shooting, and why and how Israel needs to keep a lid on the territories. The question Fauda fails to answer is why, after over a half-century, Palestinian resistance continues against Israeli colonialism on the West Bank.

Instead of a coherent answer, the second season of Fauda gives us action entertainment. Those who praise the series for striking a balance between Israeli and Palestinian perspectives mistake psychological characterization for even-handedness. It is not news that both Israeli and Palestinian parents love their children, a theme that punctuates the Fauda plotline. What this nominal even-handedness actually does in the present case is to rationalize and justify the existence of an undercover unit whose work is to penetrate Palestinian society and help perpetuate the occupation.

The victims become the mistaravim (undercover Arabs) unit members, worn down, injured, and pursued themselves by Palestinian Islamicist hunters. What this unit needs most is a kaban (Hebrew acronym for army mental health officer): nearly everyone needs to visit. This is a realistic touch since high rates of PTSD and post-service mental health issues have been reported for Duvdevan and other undercover units.

Doron Kabilio, the lead protagonist and most ferocious unit member, tries to escape by retiring, first into vineyard work and then as a shepherd on his father’s ranch in the Negev. Yet he continues to return to the unit, drawn by what he paradoxically describes as a “freedom” he feels when he enters the territories in disguise.

As the second season ends, Doron is in dire straits due to the execution-murder of his father by ISIS militants and the suicide of his Palestinian lover caught in the middle of the conflict. Then ISIS kidnaps Doron and his young son for a grand video execution prevented only by internecine Palestinian rivalry and the arrival of friends from his unit in the nick of time. By the third season, he should be a basket case.

Nurit, the only woman in the unit, loses her lover, the unit commander Moreno, in a bomb attack. She ends up in a hospital after having been beaten and sexually abused by a mob of Palestinian men who discover her camouflage while she is on a mission. Failed relationships between men and women, wives and husbands, fathers and sons, and mothers and everyone have littered the two seasons of the series.

All of this seems predictable not only for the intrinsic stresses that such police work imposes but because the work of state repression conditions the family lives of those who labour for the state. Amos, Doron’s father, who had a past career in undercover espionage, observes that the state simply uses and then discards people. In keeping with this formulation, justice will come only from families and individuals – and the unit is such a family. Given the unit’s role as a tool of the state, it is ironic that unit members believe in each other far more than the state they serve.

No such paradox inhabits the show’s representation of Palestinians and their family complexities. Issacharoff and Raz do not seem to apprehend the extreme difficulty or impossibility of Israelis scriptwriting for Palestinians. Neither have they questioned the ethics of putting words into the mouths of Palestinians, particularly given Raz’s own service in the mistaravim to enforce the occupation.

Palestinians have to sublimate anger and protest in order to navigate the realities of the occupation. Palestinians have easily the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Since the occupation began in 1967 over 800,000 Palestinian men, women, and children have served time in Israeli prisons – about 20 per cent of the general population and up to 40 per cent of adult males.

This central fact, combined with heavily limited freedom of movement, pervasive unemployment, poverty, and denial of established national identity, creates enormous psychological strains.

Samah Jabr, a leading Palestinian psychiatrist, uses Fanonian terms to explain that Palestinians suffer from attempts to silence them, “to mask them, to obliterate them completely”. The effect of repression and mass imprisonment, she argues, has been to produce both fractures and resilience within Palestinian families.

When Fauda shapes the characterization of an ISIS cell leader, Nidal ‘El Makdessi’, played eloquently by Firas Nassar, as a betrayer of his family’s political tradition, we see an Israeli drama employing family fractures to highlight divisions in the Palestinian body politic. Whose purposes does this representation serve, Israeli or Palestinian?

When Palestinian security chief Abu Maher sits in a café praising the Tel Aviv skyline to his scornful son, not yet known to him as an ISIS sympathizer who will be exiled in shame, the script uses family division to signal a necessary accommodation to Israel’s financial power. Captain Ayub, his Israeli equivalent, has a closer friendship with Abu Maher than with his own son.

Warranted or not, the Israeli script’s message is that collaboration – hated in Palestinian society – will ultimately prove more successful for all concerned. Yet those who violate that cardinal rule, such as physician Shirin El Abed – in a memorable performance by French-Lebanese actor Laëtitia Eïdo – who becomes Kabilio’s lover, have no future in Palestinian society. Shirin ends being crushed between two societies and hangs herself while in custody.

Fauda romanticizes a police infiltration tactic that has a long history in Israel, beginning in the 1950s when the security establishment sent a small number of Arabic-speaking Jews to villages in order to live there and inform on their nationalist neighbours. The show’s Israeli Jews, speaking Arabic fluently and shifting in and out of Arab guises, participate in what Werner Sollors has called ‘ethnic transvestism’, the demonstrative performance of difference.

Nothing about such performance changes the actual power relations between ethnic groups, which is precisely what is needed in order to end the occupation. Fauda does not challenge those power relations. Instead, settlements and settler violence become invisible non-issues.

PACBI has attacked Fauda as an accomplice to war crimes and made feeble threats of “legal accountability” if Netflix does not cancel the series. Questioning narrative premises is one matter; attempted censorship is another. Critiques founded on anti-Israel bigotry, of which there have been more than a few for Fauda since it became a successful international TV series, need to be dismissed.

We should watch Fauda not for its success but rather for the failures that it manifests. This is no way to treat the neighbours.

Screenshot courtesy of Netflix. All rights reserved.