Bethlehem, Israel’s nominee to the 2014 Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Film category, provides images for and insight into the current battle in Gaza where the Israelis are fully intent on eradicating Hamas’s influence in the region. Though Bethlehem is not Gaza, the conflict between Palestinian subversives and the Israeli military and internal security division is a played out along the same lines as depicted in this film. [This film is available from Netflix and on other platforms.]
The sharp sound of bullets striking a metal Bethlehem city limits sign sets the tone for this film. Sanfur, a teenage Palestinian, is at the trigger of a Kalashnikov. When his manliness is called into question by his neighborhood rival, he puts on a well-worn bullet-proof vest and urges the bully to take a shot at him. This intra-community rivalry prefigures the film’s more substantial divisions within the Palestinians.
At the heart of the movie is a relationship between Sanfur and Razi, a zealous member of Shin Beit, the internal secret police of Israel. Razi has recruited Sanfur to be an informant; to win Sanfur’s cooperation he stops a plan by the Israelis to ruin the family home, a place to which Sanfur’s militant brother, Ibrahim, is an occasional visitor. The film deftly explores the complicated relationship between Sanfur (code name “Esau”) and Razi. Sanfur is looking for a father-figure because his own thinks that his second born is a weakling compared to his more politicized, courageous brother. The motivation of Razi, who does have a wife and young children with whom he apparently spends little time, are more difficult to discern. Among the brutal men of the secret police, he’s a renegade who frequently goes his own way in pursuit of Israel’s enemies. Though an opportunist, he seems to have genuine affection and concern for the young informant. Angering his superior, Razi urges Sanfur to go to Hebron when his superior wants to use him as bait to ensnare some of the bad guys in Bethlehem. It’s a decision that combines strategy – keep the “mole” alive for other more consequential operations and to come – and benevolence.
One episode in particular provides images for comparable street-level fighting going on in Gaza. Ibrahim, who takes credit for a bombing at a busy Jerusalem marketplace, has gone undercover, but is identified in the Bethlehem market place. A chase ensues and ends at a home of non-combatant Palestinian sympathizers. Attempting a surgical capture and even death of the terrorist, the Israeli platoon is stonewalled by the family in whose home Ibrahim hides, giving the rock throwing neighbors plenty of opportunities to foil the capture. Unless we are plugged into some social media platforms, we are deprived of news station images of real street-level action in Gaza, so scenes like those in a fictional film will have to suffice.
Although both the Israel secret police and the various Palestinian factions disagree about strategies and tactics, the disagreements of the Palestinians get more attention. The intra-tribal feuds between the Palestinian Authority bureaucrats, the Palestinian Authority police, Hamas (Palestine’s Muslim Brotherhood), and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade are under the microscope. The Palestinian Authority is revealed as corrupt; in one brief scene, Abu Masu, a PA administrator, bribes a small-time power broker by offering to put his men on the payroll of a new women’s welfare agency funded by contributions from the Belgians. In another scene, members of the Palestinian Authority quarrel with the Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade over who will march through the streets and perform the burial rites for a slain Palestinian foot soldier. When Sanfur is in the force field of his people (rather than serving as informant for the charismatic Razi) he is most drawn to Badawi, the head of the Al-Aqsa unit. Even though Badawi, a Bedouin, is judged by the established Bethlehemites an unsophisticated outsider, Sanfur sees him as the one most able to obtain justice and to extract revenge most swiftly. Given the exposure of these fissures, the film might be seen as one-sided in favor of the Israelis, were it not for the brutality of Shin Beit as depicted. This police procedural is wisely even-handed, in part because it avoids any examining history before the hunt for Ibrahim begins.
It is often said about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it will need to get worse (many more will need to die) before it gets better (a possible “two-state solution”) but, as the latest round of scorched-earth fighting in Gaza reveals, it keeps getting worse and never better. This film, especially its powerful ending, offers us little comfort. In Bethlehem, the film and the city that give it its name, and throughout Israel and the Occupied Territories the cycles of revenge and recrimination continue.
See my review (In a Glimpse of the Palestine-Israel Conflict) of My Promised Land by Ari Shavits for recommendations about books and films about contemporary Israel.