Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank? (2009)

Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank?
Produced by Brian Epstein, Brenda Breslauer and Monica Iskander
NOW (PBS) Host: David Bracaccio
60 minutes
Aired on July 10, 2009
Inside Israel’s Army (2009)
Produced by Michal Zilberman and Michele Mitchel
NOW (PBS)  Host: David Bracaccio
60 minutes

Aired on July 17, 2009

PBS has not always dealt with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a balanced manner. For example, this past January, during the Israeli military operation in Gaza, PBS host Bill Moyers insinuated that Jews have a “genetically coded” propensity towards violence. But the award winning newsmagazine Now on PBS recently aired two segments, Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank? and Inside the Israeli Army, that explored different aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an informative and for the most part, balanced way.

Inside Israel’s Army

Inside Israel’s Army, which aired on July 17, 2009, profiles the views and experiences of three Israeli reservists who served in the war in Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009. Correspondent Michele Mitchell and producer Michal Zilberman produced an excellent piece of journalism by handling their interviews in a non-judgmental manner while ensuring adherence to factual accuracy.

A key element of the segment’s success lies in the selection of interview subjects. In recent years, American television audiences have been exposed to a number of documentaries touching upon the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. CNN correspondent Christianne Amanpour’s God’s Religious Warriors is an example of an agenda driven program that promoted a partisan political viewpoint by apportioning undue attention to the views of fringe figures and leaving erroneous assertions uncorrected. In contrast, Now on PBS selected three soldiers whose opinions reflected mainstream Israeli views. All three accept the need to defend their country, but express different attitudes concerning Israel’s future.

The producers and writers of the segment are careful with the facts. The narrator correctly establishes that the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 opened with Hezbollah’s bombardment of northern Israel. This is important because much of the news coverage of the conflict failed to report the sequence of events correctly by omitting Hezbollah’s initial barrage. Instead the conflict was portrayed as instigated by a single Hezbollah’s border incursion to which Israel’s subsequent bombardment and invasion of southern Lebanon seemed disproportionate.

All three reservists express their views. but of the three soldiers profiled, Ronan Herskowitz, a drama instructor in his regular life, receives the most attention. Herskowitz is the embodiment of the model Israeli citizen-soldier. “We protect life on both sides,” he asserts. His words are reinforced by his acts: his understated bravery under fire in Lebanon and later his decision to leave an IOU containing his phone number with a Lebanese family from whom he took food when his unit outran their supplies.

Herskowitz questions and criticizes decisions made by Israel’s leaders, but firmly believes in service to his country and feels a personal responsibility to not let his fellow soldiers down. His courage, decency and humility contradict the image of the IDF promoted by disaffected Israelis, like those behind the group Breaking the Silence, who are lauded by anti-Israel groups in Europe and America for their portrayal of Israelis soldiers as callous towards Palestinian civilians.

Journalist Idan Motola represents a strand of mainstream Israeli thought who no longer can abide the state’s warrior ethic that demands completion of the mission no matter what the cost. Unlike Herskowitz, Motola is uneasy about his role as a soldier, yet when called to service, he responds and recognizes there are times when the military option is the right decision.

Actor Ohad Knoller comes from the opposite end of the mainstream spectrum from Motola. He sees each battle as a piece of the larger war for Israel’s existence. Knoller is pessimistic about prospects for lasting peace, acknowledging that “even states that are at peace [with Israel] didn’t recognize Israel has its right to be a Jewish state.” Because he sees no likelihood of true acceptance by the Arabs, Knoller favors the continual bolstering of Israel’s borders. He says, “why not build settlements, keep on doing what we are good at doing, developing our state.”

All three are critical of the handling of the war with Hezbollah in 2006, yet they continue to accept the need for an aggressive military response. Their criticisms of the war do not arise from their politics, but rather from a personal loss of confidence in their leaders’ decision to go to war without adequate preparation. They see Israel’s leadership during the war as having failed at a basic level of competence.

The men were called up again during the Gaza operation in late December 2008. Despite a common desire to avoid war, all three agreed that this was “the right war for the right reasons.” As Herskowitz argues, no one can abide the relentless missile barrages from Gaza into Israeli towns.

Herskowitz describes a compact between the Israeli state and its citizen-soldiers. He says that the leadership has a responsibility to do all it can to avoid war. But once these efforts are exhausted and a military response is decided upon, the leadership needs to answer three questions:

How is it done? Why are we doing it? Who needs to do it?

Herskowitz implies that these questions were not properly answered in 2006 against Hezbollah, but were in 2009 against Hamas in Gaza.

Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank?

In Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank?, which aired on July 8, 2009, producers Brian Epstein, Brenda Breslauer and correspondent Mona Iskander examine progress in the West Bank town of Jenin, which has been selected as a key location for starting to build a new Palestinian state with the guidance of  Middle East envoy Tony Blair.

Blair acknowledges that “security is the critical first step… Unless the Israelis are sure that the Palestinian state is going to be secure and not a haven from which terrorism is going to come, they will not lift the weight of occupation.” Since diplomacy alone has failed repeatedly, he advocates a two pronged approach which relies upon easing the economic circumstances in the West Bank in tandem with improved security and diplomacy. As he puts it, “at the same time as you negotiate from the top down a solution to these tricky questions, build from the bottom up , build the capacity of the Palestinians to run their state and build economic development.”

The choice of Jenin as the site of Blair’s experiment is notable. During the second intifada from September 2000 through 2004, Jenin was a hotbed of Palestinian terrorist activity and fertile gro
und for the recruitment of suicide bombers. It was also the site of a widely condemned Israeli military incursion in April 2002.

Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank? adopts the premise that Israeli occupation is the direct cause of Palestinian hardship, but does not explain that the occupation arose as a result of the stubborn refusal of the Arabs to live at peace with the Jewish state. Refreshingly, the segment moves beyond dogma, focusing instead on practical problems of developing Palestinian society from the ground up. Iskander’s conversations with local officials and residents expose the fragility of the situation but also their hope.

Palestinian police Colonel Radi Asideh candidly explains, “The biggest difficulty was the large number of our men in the streets , gangs, killers, drug smugglers…restoring security was the biggest challenge.” Asideh’s own actions, however, are an example of the complexity of the situation. The documentary highlights the increasing professionalism of  Asideh’s police force, but does not delve into Asideh’s controversial decision in 2008 to provide shelter to a number of wanted members of the terrorist group Islamic Jihad. They had turned themselves in to him to avoid being arrested by Israeli forces. To Jerusalem Post reporter, Khalid Abu Toameh, Asideh insisted that they are not being detained as prisoners,

When they decide to leave, that will be done in front of the media to prove that the PA does not arrest anyone from Islamic Jihad. (Jerusalem Post, Jan. 25, 2009)

Asideh’s police force has by most accounts restored law and order to Jenin. The PBS segment admits, however, that it is still limited in its capability since the Israelis feel the need to resume control of security in the night. A New York Times article reinforces this point noting, ” Israeli security officials say their Palestinian colleagues are good at law and order but not at stopping terrorist groups.” (September 11, 2008)

The segment explores attempts to oppose the pull of militants and gangs by opening up new and appealing law enforcement opportunities. Iskander interviews a varied group of Palestinians, including a young man who has turned away from the militants and joined the police force instead.

An ordinary family, the Issas, express a similar shift in sentiment and hope for stability. Mahmoud Issa optimistically describes how improved law enforcement now allows his wife, Falastin to travel into Jenin with her children, unaccompanied, without fearing for her safety. Their oldest son tells Iskander he wants to grow up to be a policeman.

Early on, the segment focuses on a Palestinian-American entrepreneur who has invested $2.5 million in a factory near Jenin to export olive oil. The entrepreneur is under no illusions about the risks and there is no attempt to paint an overly optimistic picture.

In fact, throughout, skepticism abounds over whether Blair’s plan will ultimately succeed. Israeli military spokesman, Peter Lerner, offers praise for the Palestinian forces, but cautions that ” Under the surface there is high motivation to carry out terrorist attacks against Israel.” Lerner’s caution is seconded by Blair who recognizes that should the current efforts falter, violence is likely to return.  Mahmoud Issa’s linkage of the land and Palestinian dignity – “he who lets go of his land lets go of his honor”- serves as a reminder of the barriers to resolving the conflict.

There are some weak spots where the segment falls back on questionable cliches. At the checkpoint entering into the West Bank, a young Palestinian-American translator complains that she can travel to London and New York but can’t cross over to Israel. This scene is out of place in the otherwise probing documentary. It is as if this woman has no awareness of Israeli’s deadly experience with terrorist groups infiltrating young women and even children with bombs strapped to their bodies into Israeli cities. Either context should have been provided to explain why the checkpoints and strict security regimen exists or  her shallow comments should have been left out.

Iskander’s interview with Zakariah Zubeidi, a former leader of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin, is similarly lacking in factual context. Zubeidi claims “I wouldn’t harm civilians, like women and children, I wouldn’t harm those Israelis. But settlers and soldiers, no mercy.” Zubeidi is disingenuous, under his command, the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade killed dozens of Israelis in indiscriminate suicide bombings. Although it is important to let the interview subjects speak candidly, it is also the responsibility of a documentary to correct false assertions.

In one scene, an Israeli mayor of an adjacent town says that “the quality of [Palestinian] life needs to be improved” in order to set in place the right elements for peace and stability. This sentiment is a main theme of the segment. But it is worth noting that both Palestinian intifadas, in 1987 and in 2000, were launched during periods of economic upswings. A discussion of this reality would have helped make Tony Blair’s insistence that political progress needs to accompany economic improvement. The findings of researchers at Princeton University that terrorist groups tend to draw their membership from more affluent and better educated elements of the society adds further weight to favoring a tandem approach.

There is also the belief, expressed by Blair, that resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will “change radically and dramatically the relationship between Islam and the West.” The relevance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the problems between Islam and the West is debatable. How significant is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the unrest within Iran, sectarian conflict in Iraq, insurrection in Afghanistan, instability in Pakistan, border violence in Kashmir, genocide in Sudan, insurrection in Chechnya and popular discontent throughout the Arab world?

Despite some shortcomings, Peace and Prosperity in the West Bank? is a refreshing change from the typical politically motivated documentaries. It illuminates the situation on the ground and provides a good cross-section of interview subjects.

Now on PBS achieves a level of journalism not usually seen in an era where journalists often freely inject their own biases into their work even at the expense of factual accuracy. Senior writer and host David Brancaccio and the staff of Now on PBS have produced two solid documentaries exploring relevant and timely aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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