A little over a month ago, we were privileged to attend a screening of Paradise Now, sponsored by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. The movie, by Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, relates the final few days of two childhood friends recruited to be suicide bombers. We expected to hate the movie: it has won awards and accolades from all the wrong people and Abu-Assad has refused to condemn suicide bombings, describing them as "a very human reaction to an extreme situation." But the film turned out to be not only well-made but surprisingly subtle. It is unfair in some places, and there is one overarching anti-Israel theme which is difficult to justify, but it is a smart movie unworthy of the condemnation it's received from some reviewers and bloggers.
The film opens in Nablus (where it was in fact shot), as two childhood friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are told that they have been chosen for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv "together, as [they] wanted". The boys accept, but this review, translated at Davids Medienkritik is unfair when it states that they "don't hesitate a moment when" they're told they have been selected for the operation. Quite the opposite - Nashef and Suliman do a superb job conveying precisely how torn they are through long, sad looks and faltering steps - hesitations that the terrorist leaders steadfastly pretend not to notice. The clear implication - that there are doubts which neither friend feels comfortable or safe expressing - is confirmed the first time that their caretakers allow them to be alone, when the two air their doubts aloud.
It's not an accident that, from the second that Said and Khaled are told that they're going to be suicide bombers until that moment (at the fence to Israel), the terrorist leaders never leave the friends alone. Jamal (Amer Hlehel), an Islamist terrorist leader, announces to Said that Said has been selected. He then insists on not leaving Said's side for the entire night or the next day - and we later find out that the same is true with Khaled and his handler. The terrorist leaders are clearly unwilling to give the young men which they "honor" with the "duty" of suicide bombing the time or room to reconsider. The humanization of Palestinian terrorists and the abstraction of their Israeli victims - something we've criticized when it's done by the media - is here used to explore the very real dynamic by which Palestinians are trapped between the genuine hardships of Israeli military occupation and the cynical terrorist leaders who manipulate young Arab men's senses of honor to murder Jews by proxy. At times the movie is very subtle on this point: there is a scene in which Hiam Abbass, who plays Said's mother - a fairly modern, secular Palestinian widow - is sitting outside with Said in the morning. Jamal comes out of the house to meet them - at which point Said's mother quietly but hurriedly wraps her hair out of deference to the encroaching fundamentalism seeping into daily life in the West Bank.
Nonetheless, the movie is about what drives Palestinian men and women to become suicide bombers and it's by a pro-Palestinian filmmaker - so the blunt theme is that Israel's Occupation is broadly evil, while a more muted theme, which is still thoroughly anti-Israel, is that military occupation coupled with poverty turns Palestinians against one another. There's some intellectual dishonesty in the film: repeatedly the suicide bombing is described as an attack on soldiers, and the last scene indeed shows a bus filled with armed and uniformed soldiers. But the vast majority of suicide bombings - in restaurants, in front of nightclubs, and yes, on buses - have been against civilians, many of them teenagers. In another scene, Jamal states that Said and Khaled's suicide bombing will be the first one conducted by the group in two years, the implication being that Israel created the motive for the attack (and the loss of Said and Khaled's tragic lives) by assassinating a leader of the group at the very beginning of the film. However, the terrorist group is clearly Hamas (it's an Islamist group powerful in Nablus, there's a reference to the schools they run, etc) - and of course, since the Intifada began, there has never been a two-year gap in Hamas's mass murders. But since Abu-Assad never comes out and says that the group is Hamas, he can create a fictional universe in which Israel is solely responsible for instigating Palestinian violence.
Which is the one, overarching theme with which we have concerns: the insistence that the Israelis have forced the Palestinians to wage war. There is a moment during Khaled's recorded martyr's speech when he states outright that the reason he has to become a suicide bomber is because the Israelis will never offer that the Palestinians their own, viable state. This claim is demonstrably false:
What actually took place at the failed Camp David peace summit in July of 2000 has been a matter of contention. The conventional wisdom - that Israel offered generous concessions, and that Yasser Arafat rejected them to pursue the intifada that began in September 2000 - prevailed for more than a year. To counter the perception that Arafat was the obstacle to peace, the Palestinians and their supporters began to put forward a "revisionist" view of what took place at the summit. Firsthand accounts of the events, proposals, and responses of the participants in the summit have become more available in recent months, and they have by and large confirmed the Israeli account of what transpired, debunking several of the myths circulated by Palestinians and "revisionists" in the process...And on this issue the entire film turns: even an impassioned debate on the ethics and utility of suicide bombings between Khaled and Said's love interest Suha (played beautifully by Lubna Azabal) is only about the right tactic with which to fight Israel - Suha states that the Palestinians must wage a "moral war" while Khaled ridicules her as naive. The idea that the Palestinians don't have to wage war at all - that the only reason the two sides are still fighting is because Yasser Arafat turned down a historic peace offer in order to launch a premediated war largely supported by the Palestinian public - is never considered. Nor is it pointed out that before the Palestinians launched that war and Israel had to reinvade the West Bank, previous Israeli withdrawals had ensured that 97% of Palestinians lived under the control of an elected Palestinian government. And here the movie fails its audience, because the point could and should have been made - there are plenty of Palestinians in plenty of cafes who are more than willing to dismissively blame their leadership for failing them or angrily ask why Hamas leaders don't send their own children to die as suicide bombers.
The U.S. plan offered by Clinton and endorsed by Barak would have given the Palestinians 97 percent of the West Bank (either 96 percent of the West Bank and 1 percent from Israel proper or 94 percent from the West Bank and 3 percent from Israel proper), with no cantons, and full control of the Gaza Strip, with a land-link between the two; Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements as a result. In exchange for the three percent annexation of the West Bank, Israel would increase the size of the Gaza territory by roughly a third. Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of the new state, and refugees would have the right of return to the Palestinian state, and would receive reparations from a $30 billion international fund collected to compensate them. The Palestinians would maintain control over their holy places, and would be given desalinization plants to ensure them adequate water. The only concessions Arafat had to make was Israeli sovereignty over the parts of the Western Wall religiously significant to Jews (i.e., not the entire Temple Mount), and three early warning stations in the Jordan valley, which Israel would withdraw from after six years.
But even with its anti-Israel leanings, this movie is not propaganda and it's not hateful. It conveys the banality and heartbreak of a crumbling society soaked in machismo and terrorism - from wild conspiracy theories traded in taxis to the cost of renting video tapes of collaborator lynchings, from grandiose claims of honor to the best place to buy water filters. It unfairly blames Israel for the entirety of that situation, but it poignantly demonstrates how the most touching of childhood friendships is shattered by two young men's belief that they only way they can truly live is to die.