"Palestinian filmmakers are really demonstrating a growing
maturity," says filmmaker Mohammed Alatar. We met at the American
Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a week after the premier
performance of his new documentary film The Iron Wall which was
shown at the Palestinian National Theater (Al-Hakawati) in front of
a very receptive and mixed Palestinian, Israeli and international
audience, under the patronage of Mr. Rafiq al-Husseini, Chief of
Staff of the Palestinian Presidential Office. It also had a showing
in Ramallah. We spoke the day after Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now
won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign language film, and
before it was nominated for the 2006 Oscar in the same category.
"I'm not just referring to the technical, cinematic side, but
particularly the readiness to cope with difficult and serious
subjects. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of
Palestinians oppose suicide-bombing. Palestinian filmmakers should
be able to show things as they are. And that's what Paradise Now
does," he says.
The promotional flyer distributed before the showing of The Iron
Wall says that "it covers the issue of the Israeli settlements in
the Palestinian Occupied Territories and its impact on the
two-state solution." Although the name suggests that this powerful
documentary film is devoted to the separation wall, its primary
focus is on the settlements and their impact on Palestinian life
and the prospects for peace. The wall is dealt with in the latter
part of the film, and the title comes from right-wing Zionist
Revisionist leader Vladamir (Zev) Jabotinsky's theory of the need
to create an "iron wall" between Arabs and Jews. The Iron Wall was
produced by the Palestinian Agriculture Relief Committees
"Most Palestinians who have seen the film have criticized me for
using the settler woman Michal," said Alatar, "but in my view, she
represents 80 percent of the settlers who are only there for
economic reasons. If they had reasonable alternative housing at the
same price inside Israel, most of them would be happy to leave the
settlements. I want people to know that. At the end of the day, we
each have to get into the other side's shoes, to understand how
they see things, so that we can look for a solution."
I tell Alatar that this reminds me of Martin Buber's philosophy of
dialogue, of "I and Thou" that has guided me in my journalistic
Showing Life as It Is
Why did Alattar decide to make The Iron Wall? "When we started the
peace process, it was based on the principle of land for peace. Ten
years later, after thousands of lives have been lost and with more
and more land occupied, we haven't reached peace. I could have
continued living a comfortable life in America where I've been
living for the past few years, but I felt it was necessary to come
back to Palestine, to show life as it is, and to try to promote a
"If there is one thing on the ground that really disturbs us on a
daily basis," he continues, "it's the checkpoints, where we get
humiliated the most. However, the greatest obstacle to a solution
is the settlements. That's what I wanted to show in the film.
People can say, 'let's talk,' but as we talk, one less slice of
land is available for a future Palestinian state."
Alatar defines himself as a peace activist, and serves as the
director of Palestinians for Peace and Democracy (P4PD). Last year
he brought Arun Ghandi, Mahatma Ghandi's grandson, to the region to
teach both Palestinians and Israelis the power of nonviolence. He
believes that the development of a massive nonviolent movement is
the key to ending the occupation. However, he says that everyday it
becomes harder to convince Palestinians of the effectiveness of
this approach, as they see negative changes before their very eyes
from their windows and roofs. There are now over 200 settlements,
and they affect every aspect of daily life. He met a cab driver who
had his car confiscated because he traveled on the wrong by-pass
road (that avoids Palestinian villages). It's also Palestinians who
are building the 12-foot high wall at Abu Dis.
"What I wanted to do in my film," he says "is to show the reality
on the ground. I wanted to highlight how the settlements are the
major obstacle to peace. I want people to know that, out of the 600
checkpoints, there are only 24 separating us from Israel. All of
the others separate Palestinians from Palestinians, and they were
set up to protect the settlers." He says that the equation is
simple - no settlements, no checkpoints. There would be no need for
young Israeli soldiers to humiliate Palestinians. "The settlement
enterprise is not the Israeli people's project, it's the government
project. The polls say that the majority of the Israelis don't care
about this very expensive project. So why should they continue to
be built, and get financial support?"
Using Mainstream Voices
"I believe that the majority of American Jews are peace-loving
people," he says, "but they lack information. That's why I decided
to present many of the ideas in the film not via fanatic Israeli
leftists, but via mainstream Israelis like respected Ha'aretz
commentator Akiva Eldar, the very knowledgeable Peace Now
settlement watch expert, Dror Etkes, Professor Jeff Halper (though
sometimes his formulations are quite strong), and even the settler
Michal." He tried to have decent on-camera conversations with
ideological settlers, but it didn't work. Also appearing on camera
are articulate Palestinian spokespeople, such as then-Palestinian
Authority Minister Ghassan El-Khatib and journalist Sama'an
He says that research for the film took a long time. "Israel says
that only 2.5 percent of the West Bank contains settlement
structures. True, but when you add the security by-pass roads and
zones, it reaches 42 percent. I got that number from Peace Now. The
main difficulty in finding out facts is that most of the figures
are hidden in all the government department budgets." Alatar notes
that Haaretz did a very good job when it published a special
supplement about the price of the settlement enterprise. "When an
American Jew gives money, they are not told it's going to the
settlements, it's going to help the Ministry of Education."
Palestinians also learned things from the film. When it was shown
in Ramallah, he was told by people that they didn't realize that so
much settlement activity went on during the euphoric early days of
the Oslo process. They remembered Palestinian children handing out
candy to Israeli soldiers, while Israel was continuing to create
facts on the ground.
It wasn't easy making the film. He was afraid that they were going
to lose one of the crew members during a violent outburst in Hebron
when they were filming some young, armed settlers. Israeli TV news
programs recently showed similar footage when armed and masked
settlers challenged IDF soldiers, causing a media uproar. Another
time he wanted to film settlers in Kiryat Arba, and he realized
that if he showed them his American passport, with the name
Mohammed, he wouldn't get very far. Using his ingenuity, he tied an
orange ribbon (used by the Israeli opponents of the disengagement)
to his car, and that became his passport. No one stopped him.
'To Make Peace with Your Enemy, Go to War with
Mohammed Alatar had a tough childhood, growing up as a refugee in
He remembers watching Israeli TV, particularly the Egyptian movies
on Friday afternoons. He also saw the sexy Israeli women in
bikinis, something that his mother didn't exactly like. Once he saw
a press conference with Moshe Dayan that took place at the King
David Hotel. He thought, I know who King Hussein is, but who the
hell is King David?
He met his first Jew when he went to the United States, in Chicago.
He was having trouble with the immigration authorities and realized
that he needed the help of a lawyer. They said the best immigration
lawyer available was Jewish. Two days later he went to meet him. He
usually said that he was from Jordan, but this time he decided to
say "I'm from Palestine, though you call it Israel." The lawyer
responded "Never heard of it." He thought, I can't do business with
him, but then the lawyer said something to me in Arabic, and it
turned out he was an Israeli!" He then called in four other
associates for consultation about the case, all Jews. "I had always
heard that Jewish men had big noses, but when I looked around me, I
realized that I had the biggest nose in the room!"
"The toughest decision in people's lives," he says "is to let their
cookies crumble. I soon began to realize that Jews are like
everyone else. If that's how much I know about them, how much do
they know about me? To make peace with your enemy, you have to go
to war with yourself, with your own stereotypical beliefs - the
sooner the better. I decided to read everything I could about the
Jewish people, and about Zionism. I can't say I've become a friend,
but I have a much deeper understanding."
Using Film as a Medium for Understanding
Alatar decided to devote his life to trying to bring about better
understanding between the two peoples. And films became his medium.
"I think about the Holocaust, six million people vanished. After I
visited the Holocaust Museum, the thing I remembered was the empty
shoes. You can tell the story of some of them in two hours of film.
You can also tell the story of Moses, of Jesus and of Mohammad in
two hours of film. Science says that we remember visual images 400
more times than we remember written material. I want people to
understand that the Israeli-Palestinian problem can be fixed - with
enough money. I also want the Israeli public and the Jewish people
in general to know what's happening in Hebron. How the settlers are
acting towards the local Palestinians. One soldier told me that he
didn't want to be in the film. He also didn't want to be in Hebron.
He wanted to be on a Tel Aviv beach with his girlfriend. At the
same time, the mayor of Hebron said to me that he would have no
problem allowing religious Jews to continue to live in Hebron - in
a Palestinian state
He hopes the film will be shown on the P.B.S. network in the United
States, and took out eight minutes to fit their guidelines. Not
only film, but satellite TV is having an impact on public opinion.
Alatar saw a debate on Al-Jazeira, where Bassam Al-Sarhi asked a
Hamas representative, Are you ready to accept a two-state solution
and to make peace? "The audience applauded," he said.
"Suicide-bombers aren't resistance against the occupation. They're
fighting the Jews. On the Israeli side people should say the same
thing about the settlers," says Alatar.
"This is not a balanced film," he says, "but it's an objective
film. It's made by an open-minded Palestinian, and I challenge
anyone to challenge the facts."
Now the film is on its way to international festivals. But his
primary target audience is the mainstream American Jewish
His next project is to solicit funding for a film that will tell
the story of the Jewish people to Arab audiences, in Arabic. It
will include all of the Israeli voices, from Avigdor Leiberman on
the right to Yossi Sarid on the left. "We simply don't know much
about each other," he says. "Can you imagine 200,000 Holocaust
survivors meeting 200,000 refugees at Allenby Bridge?"