Inverse hasbara: How ‘5 Broken Cameras’ changed Palestinians’ attitude toward nonviolence

One Palestinian prisoner writes that the bravery in the Oscar-nominated documentary, denounced by the Israeli government as slander, affected even militant inmates, suggesting they could benefit from exposure to nonviolent literature.

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By  | Apr.07, 2013 | 6:00 PM |  7
Masked Palestinian militants hold their weapons during the funeral of Maysara Abu Hamdeya in the Wes

Masked Palestinian militants hold their weapons during the funeral of Maysara Abu Hamdeya in the West Bank city of Hebron April 4, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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 | Apr.07,2013 | 6:00 PM |  74

The Palestinian security prisoners incarcerated in Hadarim Prison in Even Yehuda recently had the opportunity to watch the Oscar-nominated documentary “5 Broken Cameras,” about the protests against the separation fence in the West Bank town of Bil’in, not once but twice: on Israel’s Channel 2 as well as on the Palestinian television station.

One of those prisoners did in fact watch the movie on both channels. Walid Daqa a 52-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel from Baaqa al-Gharbiyeh, followed, somewhat amused, the discussion over whether the documentary – which was co-directed by an Israeli and a Palestinian and criticized by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat as slandering Israel – qualified as an Israeli or Palestinian. But most of all, he was interested in the reactions of his fellow prisoners, as he wrote in a letter to his friend Anat Matar, a philosophy lecturer at Tel Aviv University and his pen pal of several years.

At a time when Palestinian prisoners are in the headlines for their deaths, whether during interrogation or due to cancer, hunger strikes, protests or stone throwing, Daqa’s letter to Matar (written in Hebrew) offers a glimpse of the world of Palestinian prisoners from a different angle.

“The prisoners are a masculine society or subculture that praises and glorifies the values of aggressiveness and sees nonviolence as feminine,” wrote Daqa. “If a man espouses nonviolence, he is thought of almost as gay, as someone whose place is not among the freedom fighters. And of course, they don’t see any contradiction between being freedom fighters and [supporting] the repression of a man’s right to live how he wants, whether it’s a gay man or anyone else.”

He continued, “The film has exposed the prisoners to something new. They suddenly discovered that the struggle of these ‘yuppies,’ these ‘spineless’ people from Bil’in and Na’alin, isn’t simple at all, but demands faith and sacrifice, and bears with it not a little risk. And suddenly they discovered that standing exposed to the barrel of a rifle, without any means of defense, reflects courage and bravery that are far greater than the bravery required to stand behind a rifle. And I would add that in order to stand behind that rifle and be a good gunman, all you need is to be a coward and a person who lacks ethics and values.”

Daqa has been in jail for 27 years, since March 1986. In 1987, a military tribunal in Lod gave him a life sentence for his membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine cell that killed an Israel Defense Forces soldier, Moshe Tamam, in 1984.

Daqa has admitted to belonging to the cell, but continues to deny any connection to the murder. A fellow member of the cell who incriminated Daqa during questioning by the Shin Bet security service has since retracted this part of his statement, but the military tribunal dismissed Daqa’s request for a retrial.

Over the years, Daqa has reached the conclusion that his social and national aspirations can be best expressed through membership in a group that is active in Israel – the Balad political party. He won a legal battle to get the Israel Prison Service to remove his classification as a member of the Popular Front, and his sentence was recently commuted to 37 years.

An “elder” who has been imprisoned for almost three decades, Daqa noted, “The movie changed the minds of many of the prisoners regarding the nonviolent popular struggle. From my perspective, the movie could be Israeli or Czech; what’s important is that it shook up the prisoners’ macho culture and militaristic outlook.”

“The question that remains unanswered and that prevents people from adopting the concept of a nonviolent struggle is whether such a struggle can advance [their] objectives and reach [their] goals,” he wrote. “There is a ton of literature in the jails that explains and glorifies armed struggle, but there aren’t any books about Mahatma Gandhi, for instance, or the struggle of African-American citizens – Martin Luther King and others.

“If I were in the shoes of the Israeli culture minister, instead of condemning and attacking the movie and the directors, I would fund the purchase of books and studies about nonviolent struggle and flood the libraries of Israeli jails with that literature,” Daqa continued. “This movie can help prevent killing and fresh graves [from being dug] in this land.”

Israeli TV programs are one of the windows through which Daqa keeps up to date on Israeli society. On March 4, he wrote to Matar about watching the evening news, clicking between channels 2 and 10.

“Over the course of the news broadcast, during half an hour, incidents of racism were reported that, taken individually, were not sensational stories, but the mass [of such reports] on its own is frightening,” he wrote.

Daqa listed several news items: the attack on an Arab woman in Jerusalem by passersby; the attack on an Arab laborer in Tel Aviv; the similar attack two days prior on an Arab sanitation worker from Jaffa; the walkout of hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem fans from a soccer stadium when the team’s Chechen Muslim player scored a goal, and the separate public transportations for settlers and Palestinian workers from the West Bank to Israel.

“If that’s what made it into the headlines, it’s reasonable to assume there are hundreds of incidents of racism that aren’t reported, not to mention the demolition of homes in Jerusalem or the settlers’ attacks on West Bank residents,” wrote Daqa. “This is a situation that requires urgent Arab-Jewish efforts. Not to come out with joint statements of condemnation and certainly not to use these incidents for political taunts, but to find the most practical ways of reducing the level of violence and making the majority see it as something contemptible.”

“This kind of discourse should not define the Israeli-Arab conflict,” he wrote. “Such a discourse is very popular among and welcomed by religious forces on both sides. Through such wordings, an extreme religious discourse is being imposed, and it overrides common sense and repels every possibility of resolution. Fascism, all fascism, thrives on hatred and the absence of rational thought and rational politics.”