The Film That Predicted Israel’s Far-right Takeover

In their documentary ‘H2: The Occupation Lab,’ Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf show how the military occupation in Hebron has served as a model for the whole settlement project – and now for life in Israel itself

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Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf.
Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Last month’s screening of the new Israeli documentary “H2: The Occupation Lab” at a community center in Pardes Hannah was supposed to be anything but exceptional. But a letter from Shai Glick, an energetic right-wing activist who had never even seen the film, persuaded the local council chief to cancel the event.

Glick has spent years running after politicians to caution them about every creative effort that “adversely affects Israeli soldiers” or “encourages terror.” Now he has gone so far as to portray one of the filmmakers as a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and someone who dodged Israel’s compulsory military service. Even though most interviewees in the film are former senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces – and the attorney general's office ruled that public screenings cannot be canceled on such grounds – Glick succeeded.

And so the screening of the documentary on Israel’s military presence in Hebron, the West Bank Palestinian city with a Jewish settlement in its eastern half, became a sit-in in this town north of Tel Aviv. Concerned filmmakers and political activists gathered that weekend to protest the council chief’s ban. They heard a few speeches about censorship and curled up in their coats to watch the forbidden film, which was shown on a portable screen in the open air.

All this happened before new Culture Minister Miki Zohar took office, and before he announced that funding in the future would be conditional on a commitment not to malign the state or the IDF.

The screening of the documentary 'H2: The Occupation Lab' in Pardes Hannah.Credit: Roni Aboulafia

“H2: The Occupation Lab” tracks the evolution of the military’s control of a Palestinian city that hosts one of the most holy sites to both Jews and Muslims, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It shows how the Israeli occupation of Hebron began in 1967, to be followed by upheavals ever since.

It explores key events that have badly eroded relations in the IDF-settler-Palestinian triangle. It shows how military control has been built bit by bit, improvisation by improvisation, amid the state’s constant backing for the settlers – as the hatred between the sides only worsens.

“Everything we see that the Israeli regime is doing throughout the West Bank, and even in East Jerusalem, began as trial and error in Hebron. To come to Hebron is to see what will happen in other places two months from now, a year from now,” attorney Michael Sfard says in the documentary’s opening scene.

The two filmmakers, Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf, highlight trends and methods of military control they say began in this city and have spread throughout the occupied territories – and to Israel, as well.

They say Hebron is where the policy of separating Jews and Palestinians began; it’s where rubber-coated bullets were first fired – in the first intifada. It’s where facial recognition systems for surveilling Palestinians were first used.

The result: “a Hebronization of the Israeli situation,” as Sheizaf puts it. “The idea of intentionally settling in the heart of a Palestinian population, the desire to regain control of houses that belonged to Jews before 1948 – the same thing has happened since in Silwan and in Sheikh Jarrah,” he says, citing two neighborhoods of East Jerusalem.

Filmmaker Idit Avrahami.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“Similarly, the concept of militarization, of sending the army into Palestinian settlements, that’s what the right, what Itamar Ben-Gvir would like to do today in the Triangle too [a region of Arab towns in central Israel]. Hebron is the occupation lab because we’re seeing how Hebron logic is gradually becoming the logic behind the Israeli reality.

“We tell people: Don’t look at Hebron because what’s happening there is significant and sad and awful, but look at Hebron because it’s basically a postcard from the future. It’s a postcard from the future of Jerusalem – and also Tel Aviv.

“What seems to you like an insane dystopia you’ll soon be living here. This is the kind of relationship that the government will be forging between Jews and Arabs in this country. It will bring the army into the Palestinian cities and Judaize East Jerusalem. It will forbid leftists from visiting there, and it will forbid criticism. It begins in the Hebron laboratory, and from there it will spread all over the country.”

Sheizaf and Avrahami invested around five years in this film, but one could argue that their intense efforts are no longer necessary to prove their thesis.

On the morning of the day of my interview with Sheizaf, Israel woke up to headlines announcing the visit to the Temple Mount by the new far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir. He has lived for years in the Kiryat Arba settlement that abuts Hebron, and has painstakingly stoked the settlers’ violent behavior toward the Palestinians in the larger town.

The trailer for 'H2: The Occupation Lab.'

“Once it’s decided to rule over another population by force, it becomes an inevitable development. The occupation gives rise to the settlers’ control of the Israeli system,” Sheizaf says.

“Now, as the film comes out with such unbelievable and terrible timing, a government is coming to power that’s driven by Hebron logic, whose poster boy is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who lives in Kiryat Arba, his spiritual world. His conception is that of the landlord who controls everybody else through military force, an outlook of ‘anybody who doesn’t agree with us, we’ll straighten him out, by force.’”

Rabbi Levinger’s rifle

“H2: The Occupation Lab” isn’t the first documentary on Hebron. Others include Anat Even and Ada Ushpiz’s “Detained” and Ruth Walk’s “The Settlers,” which took the point of view of the Palestinian victims in Hebron. But Avrahami and Sheizaf decided to focus on the military occupation.

They wanted to explore the ramifications of this control on people, and in 2016, during the Elor Azaria affair, they saw their chance. In March that year in Hebron, Azaria, an Israeli soldier, shot dead a Palestinian assailant who was already lying motionless on the ground.

Filmmaker Noam Sheizaf.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Avrahami and Sheizaf began visiting Hebron, sat in on Azaria’s trial, and considered shaping the film around the affair. But on one visit they realized that the city was the key to a bigger story. The killing, the trial, the light punishment for the soldier, the affair’s great drama – all this could only have happened in Hebron.

“We went there, again and again, and we’d walk around Shuhada Street,” Avrahami says. “Even though it’s only an hour and a half from Tel Aviv, few people go there, so we wanted to make the viewers feel how it is to walk there on that street. Basically, it grew out of an experience that’s both cinematic and emotional, because you arrive there and see an abandoned street, empty, with walls and barbed-wire fences and soldiers guarding you on every side.

“It looks like an abandoned film set. There are abandoned buildings, signs, Palestinians walking on both sides of the street because they’re not allowed to drive a car, and settlers driving alongside them in cars. Walking around there, you undergo an emotional experience. Every time we went there we came back very emotionally charged. We began to think about how we could put the viewer through this experience.”

Avrahami is talking about the city’s main drag, which begins at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and is a kilometer and a half long, nearly a mile. Much of it is Shuhada Street, once part of a bustling city center, a Mediterranean city at its best.

Today, not much remains. “We decided to try to go back in time and understand how Shuhada became one of the strangest streets in Israel, a street where the apartheid is so present,” Avrahami says.

Sheizaf and Avrahami started shooting, but the pandemic got in the way. So they sat down in Channel 1’s archives and went through old newscasts, looking for material on Hebron.

The result can be seen in “H2: The Occupation Lab,” which offers a glimpse onto Shuhada Street’s glory days. The film also lets you wander around the street today and see the shackled shops, the soldiers, the checkpoints, the fences that resemble cages, the restrictions on movement that turn residents’ lives into a nightmare, the anxiety and hatred that seem everywhere. The story is also told by former senior officers in the military government.

“We decided to interview them, of all people, because we’re Israeli directors, and our mandate is to tell the story through our eyes as Israelis,” Avrahami says.

Sheizaf adds: “Reality doesn’t provide the same opportunity to speak to the Palestinian, to the settler, to the official in the Civil Administration [the defense establishment’s governing body in the West Bank]. Out in the field there’s no such thing as equality, and the film consciously attempts to reconstruct this balance of power. Which is why the people who tell a story are those who wrote it, who ran the show out in the field.”

Hebron in 1986. Once a bustling city center.Credit: KAN Archives

One part of the film describes events that took place in Hebron in 1976; it involved Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who led the first settlement efforts in the city in 1968. One day in 1976, when riots broke out in Hebron, Levinger set out with a few of his people “to impose order.” Giora Streichman, at the time an operations officer in Hebron, says he was driving in his jeep, heard gunshots, and eventually could see Levinger and four of his people shooting.

“I said to them, ‘Move it, Levinger, the army is here, you can go home.’ I said it just like that, in a friendly way. But he started yelling at me and kept on shooting. So I grabbed him, pushed him up against a wall and said to him, ‘Levinger, you shit, take your people and leave.’ Then they kept on walking – walking and shooting.”

Levinger was later arrested and faced a military tribunal for not listening to the army and illegal use of an IDF rifle. In the documentary, we see the judge reading out the verdict – that acquitted Levinger.

As the judge put it, “The people from Kiryat Arba and the defendant did not insult Lt. Giora or the soldiers, and did not cause any provocation through their behavior.” Ze’ev Bloch, then Hebron’s military governor, said after the decision, “This verdict essentially gave Levinger and his people authorization to continue to do whatever they want.”

“H2: The Occupation Lab” delves into a raft of events: the decision by Mohammed Ali al-Jabari, then Hebron’s mayor, to grant land he owned to settlers, enabling them to build Kiryat Arba there; the Israeli government’s insistence on holding elections in the city in 1976, which led to the removal of al-Jabari, even though he was willing to collaborate with the military regime; the arrival of Levinger and his people at the Park Hotel in the city on Passover Eve 1968; the "invasion" by women and children of the city’s Beit Hadassah compound in 1979, which two years later led to the government’s decision to revive the Jewish community in Hebron; the first intifada and the terror attacks in the city; and of course the effect of the Oslo Accords and Baruch Goldstein’s killing of 29 Palestinian worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

Ex-senior officers in the military government talk about the settlers, who felt betrayed and abandoned when the agreements were being reached. They talk about the dangerous escalation that followed the 1994 massacre, and about Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit to Hebron one week later – the government nearly decided to evacuate the settlers from the city center.

Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf in Hebron.Credit: Avner Shahaf

“According to the accepted version over the years, the terror attacks began after the signing of the Oslo Accords, but basically the major attacks such as the blowing up of buses began only after the Goldstein massacre,” Avrahami says.

“Actually, there wasn’t a single attack on a bus until the day that Goldstein, a settler wearing an army uniform, entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy place, fired in every direction and killed 29 worshippers as they were bowing down and praying. Later the Jewish community in Hebron was almost evacuated, but apparently Rabin didn’t have enough authority, so the result was a general curfew where the Palestinians remained shut in their homes for months, even though the person who carried out the terror attack was a settler. It was a key moment in the history of this place.”

The film also skips to the apartheid-like result of the present: 8,000 Jews insisting on living in the heart of more than 200,000 Palestinians.

“Ben-Gvir and [fellow far-rightist] Orit Strock, people who for many years were considered outcasts, are now ministers in the government. When we began work on the film, such an idea seemed unrealistic,” Avrahami says. “If a small community like Kiryat Arba and the handful of people in Hebron, 8,000 people, now have two ministers in the government, that’s the logic of the system. Until the second intifada, the settlers in Hebron were considered very esoteric, but then, after the [2001] terror attack in which the baby Shalhevet Pass was shot in the middle of the Jewish community in Hebron, their climb to positions of power began, and their entry into the mainstream began.”

Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Fear of cinema

Avrahami, 45, had already explored events in the West Bank. She made the documentary series “The Boy Who Died of Fear” about a Palestinian boy who died after being beaten by a settler in 1996.

But she also has a personal connection. Part of her family has been in Hebron for nine generations. She’s a descendant of Rabbi Shneur Zalman and the Slonim family that was part of the old Jewish community in town. Several members of her family were killed in the 1929 riots.

“My family had quite a bit of property in Hebron, and if I were a different director I’d probably go out and find my lost family in the city. I didn’t do that, but still, this is one reason that made it important to me to include 1929 in the film, because even in those riots there were key moments that you can’t ignore,” she says.

“After all, over the years the settlers have justified their return to Hebron on the claim that there’s Jewish property there. But of course, this claim can be applied to almost every city in Israel.”

As a writer and editor Sheizaf, 48, also has focused on the West Bank. He met Avrahami when they were both working at a Tel Aviv weekly, and a few years ago, when she spoke with HOT 8 about making a film on the territories, it was a no-brainer for her to enlist Sheizaf.

Hebron also features in Sheizaf’s personal story. He was a deputy company commander in the city when after the 1997 Hebron Agreement the IDF withdrew from about 80 percent of Hebron, Area H1. Settlers and the army remained in the other 20 percent, Area H2.

In fact, Sheizaf lowered the Israeli flag at an IDF position, “and I told my soldiers, ‘That’s it, the occupation is over,’” he says with a laugh.

And here we are, a quarter-century later. You’ve made the film, and in his first speech as culture minister, Miki Zohar promised to only fund endeavors that “will not tarnish the country if they receive government funding.”

“Documentaries are meant to look at society’s wounds, and the occupation is the biggest problem that the State of Israel and Israeli society faces. It’s so major that 50 years haven’t been able to resolve it.

An Israeli Israel Border policeman talk to a citizen of Hebron, from the documentary.Credit: Manal El Jabri

“The idea that documentaries are supposed to ignore the number-one sociopolitical issue in the country reflects a failure to understand the role of culture, especially documentary filmmaking. It’s the logic of a culture minister who comes out against culture, who thinks that culture is entertainment and propaganda. But it’s the job of documentary filmmaking to engage in the social wounds, and there’s no greater wound than the occupation.”

Avrahami: “You also have to say that these statements immediately affect the rest of the world, and remember that two days after the Pardes Hannah story we were accepted to the [film] festival competition in Biarritz [France], and we received a lot more requests from abroad. In other words, the minute you try to silence a film, it gets a lot more attention, both in Israel and abroad. So if Miki Zohar tries to censor these films, they’ll only get more buzz, and more places will want to show them.”

Sheizaf: “Abroad, I think, but not in Israel. I’m sure that because of what happened in Pardes Hannah, 10 other places in Israel will now think twice before agreeing to show the film. They’re asking themselves, ‘Why do I need to get into trouble? I’ll show another small personal film.’ In other words, censorship is at work here in Israel.”

Miri Regev’s legacy

Actually, it can be said that such a suppression of films has already happened, as well as threats to deny budgets to cultural institutions, amid local councils that cancel screenings and filmmakers who censor themselves to avoid trouble. This is the legacy of Likud’s Miri Regev, who was culture minister from 2015 to 2020.

Regev – who before entering office declared, “If it’s necessary to censor, I’ll censor” – may not have managed to stifle all the films she wanted to, but she definitely tried.

Shortly after taking office, she tried to cancel the Jerusalem Film Festival’s screening of the documentary “Beyond the Fear” about Rabin assassin Yigal Amir. Instead, she managed to have it shown outside the festival. Right-wing activists exploited this atmosphere of censorship and got the authorities in Sderot and Be’er Sheva in the south to cancel screenings of the Dutch documentary “Shaking in Gaza.”

The Hebron Jewish community's spokesman, Noam Arnon, is being interviewed for the movie in the Cave of the Patriarchs.Credit: Noam Sheizaf

And in 2019, Regev launched an assault on the documentary “Advocate” about attorney Lea Tsemel who defends Palestinians. With the help of right-wing activists, a showing of the film in Ma’alot in the north was canceled (even though the deputy attorney general said it’s illegal to cancel the screening of a film, a breach of freedom of expression).

Regev also repeatedly tried to cancel “48 mm,” a film festival on the Nakba – the Palestinians’ disaster of 1948 – held at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. She also attacked Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot,” which according to Haaretz includes “the howl of parents whose soldier son has died, the bellow of a soldier at a checkpoint.”

Regev also tried to sabotage the Ophir Prize candidacy of the documentary “Born in Deir Yassin,” and called on the finance minister to reconsider funding for the Haifa Film Festival because it showed two “subversive” films. When she had a hard time cutting off such funding, she pushed a “loyalty in culture law.” That legislation didn’t pass. For now.

Still, Sheizaf was surprised by the cancellation in Pardes Hannah. “I was surprised that they banned the screening before watching it or speaking with us,” he says. “Two weeks later they tried to stop a screening of another film, in Holon [“Two Kids a Day,” which documents the arrests of minors in the West Bank]. The municipality and the Cinematheque realized that this wasn’t their job.

The new Culture Minister Miki Zohar speaks at the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“In Pardes Hannah, only an hour after receiving a letter from some right-winger who wrote that the film harms Israeli soldiers, they banned the screening without having seen it. It surprised me that [the local council chief] didn’t even ask to see it before making the decision.”

Did that really surprise you? After all, even when Miri Regev was culture minister, neither she nor local council chiefs bothered to watch films before canceling screenings. And after “Two Kids a Day” was shown in Holon, it stirred up a controversy at Kibbutzim College.

“Maybe I’m naive. I assume that people have a sense of curiosity and a sense of responsibility to their jobs, and that they want to understand something before they act.”

I worry that you really are a little naive, but what was interesting this time is that the protest was a bit more extreme. It was no longer only against the film, it was against you, the creator.

“Glick wrote incorrect things to the council. For instance, he wrote that I refused to serve in the army, though actually I refused to serve in the territories but continued to serve in the IDF, in the reserves.

A Palestinian woman scuffles with Israeli security forces, this week, as she tries to prevent bulldozers from demolishing her family house, under construction without a permit from the Israeli authorities, in Hebron.Credit: HAZEM BADER - AFP

“He also wrote that I support BDS, and that’s not true. But actually, I don’t want to get into it, because that would be responding to his way of thinking. Incidentally, he also wrote in his letter that the film shows that the Israeli army is conducting experiments on Palestinians.”

In the meantime, Glick called on Israelis to disrupt the screening at the Holon Cinematheque, and after the screening at the restaurant in Pardes Hannah, he called on people on social media to boycott the restaurant and try to get its ranking lowered on Google. “In other words, this harassment won’t end at public buildings. In the future, they’ll also harass private places and also private individuals. It’s very clear how these things move ahead,” Sheizaf says.

Avrahami adds that she wasn’t surprised, though she still has something optimistic to say. “In a demonstration in Pardes Hannah, about 300 people took part, filmmakers and ordinary activists. Demonstrating against them were 20 or 25 right-wing activists with huge loudspeakers and Israeli flags. They constantly shouted at us at an insane volume: ‘Destroyer of Israel,’ ‘Anti-IDF film,’” she says.

“I was under intense pressure there because I said, ‘Who would stay here to watch a film that’s over 100 minutes long in the bitter cold?’ Still, people sat on the floor in the cold and watched, and the right-wing demonstrators, who at the start were still shouting against the film, got curious. Several of them stayed to watch it, with their flags.”

Sheizaf adds: “That’s the power of cinema. Nobody listens to speeches at a demonstration, but cinema and media have power. And this was an example of that. I think that this film will get anyone who sees it to think. We made it for Israelis. We want to show it everywhere, because we believe in the power of the cinema to open people’s eyes.”

Right-wing demonstrators may have taken the trouble to watch the film, but the culture minister wants you and the creators of “Two Kids a Day” to return the public funding you received. He threatened to retroactively revoke budgets for films of this type.

Israeli machinery demolish a Palestinian house in Hebron in the occupied West Bank January 11, 2023.Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

Sheizaf: “The demand to return the funding retroactively is basically a fine on the filmmakers, on their opinions and on their work, because it’s money that has already been paid to all the suppliers as part of the production. It’s punishment for making a film on the occupation, and it’s also designed to deter the next producers from taking such a risk.”

“These aren’t films that there are factual disagreements on. In both our film and ‘Two Kids,’ the interviews are mainly of Israelis, including members of the establishment, and the archival material comes mainly from official Israeli sources. These aren’t inventions. These are films about reality, but the right wing’s objective is to make taking part in such things dangerous, so that instead of this, we’ll all make propaganda.”

Avrahami: “The question is who will fund such films. Anyway, very few places support documentaries like this, which will now become even more rare. After all, what broadcasting group will agree to back such films, as Rinat Klein did at HOT 8? And how many more producers will take on the financial risk? The fear is that directors will no longer be able to make these films here.”

Sheizaf: “All sorts of people are telling us that the publicity has been good for the film. That’s BS, because the right’s method is to expose people to attention, spread accusations about them and make sure they’re cursed on social media; they’re marked every time somebody Googles them. This is a very effective method that on the left leads to feelings that you’re under siege.

“So to sit at home and say, ‘It’s good that they had a go at you, it’s good PR for you,’ is to wash your hands of the war going on here. The Hebron logic – the soldier who punches a left-winger and says ‘Ben-Gvir is going to bring order; you’ve had it’ – that’s what Miki Zohar is doing in culture. Right now, Hebron is also the Culture Ministry. So we have to get up and fight for our right as citizens to make films like this, and fight to uphold our right to address the toughest issues in Israel.”

For its part, the Pardes Hannah-Karkur council said: “In our jurisdiction there is justification for the debate stemming from the film, though not in buildings designated for the entire public, or with content that could harm parts of the public.” The council said it had not expressed “any stance in favor of or against the content of this or other films on these subjects.”

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