Planned Community From Hell

H2: The Occupation Lab

H2: The Occupation Lab, the documentary film by Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf, is a powerful indictment of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories since capturing Hebron in 1967’s Six-Day War.

Border policeman and Palestinian, Hebron.

But the story they tell, expertly intertwining interviews with archival footage, has the potential to do a great deal more.

In interviews about the project, Avrahami and Sheizaf emphasise that they weren’t simply trying to show what went wrong in Hebron but to demonstrate how it ended up serving as a proving ground for practices now used throughout Israel.

However, even that broader scope sells H2 short.

Israel has long been a model for governments looking to exert greater control over the populations they rule, both where democratic institutions remain robust and in places where they have been weakened by authoritarianism.

Wherever people assert their grievances, it’s a good bet that the forces charged with containing their disruptive potential will be following Israel’s lead. The notorious Pegasus spyware used for surveillance operations is a notable recent example.

Considering the way Jews were treated in Europe prior to the Holocaust, restricted to ghettos and subject to all manner of overt and covert discrimination and regular outbursts of deadly violence, the fact that Israel now represents the cutting edge in punitive segregation is a tragic irony.

That is hardly breaking news. Ever since Israel gained its independence from Great Britain, the government’s mistreatment of Palestinians has been pilloried for its blatant hypocrisy. How could the only democracy in the Middle East be so profoundly racist?

What sets H2 apart is the care the filmmakers take in showing how much worse things have become over the past half-century. It’s like watching the proverbial frog in a pot of water being slowly brought to a boil.

Depending on your point of view, you might conclude that the situation in Hebron had already become intolerable by the mid-1970s or during the first Intifada. But only a hardline defender of the settlement movement would argue that Hebron still functions the way a city should right now.

The problem, of course, is that the Israeli government itself has become that hardline defender, sometimes reluctantly, but always with a surplus of force at its disposal. To an outsider, it often resembles a rogue cop, randomly beating the shit out of people simply because it can.

Just as bad cops don’t typically begin their tenure on the force crossing that line, Israel didn’t set out to destroy the civic life of Hebron. Some of the military leaders interviewed in the film come off as rather sympathetic, people doing the best they can within a situation that inevitably brings out everyone’s worst.

But after the settlements had become firmly established, identity politics took over. Secular Israel was eclipsed by Jewish Israel. Once the conflict in Hebron was conceptualised as a zero-sum conflict,  Arabs were bound to find themselves on the losing end to messianic colonists.

While the protests that have been rocking Israel since January might seem to be an encouraging sign, an indication that the state’s theocratic tendencies might still be held in check, H2 makes it abundantly clear that the rule of law was already forsaken long ago in places like Hebron.

It’s not hard to imagine audiences in the European Union responding to the film smugly. While it is true that the EU’s growing immigrant population contends with immense structural disadvantages, human rights are still valued in ways that seem inconceivable in Hebron.

Yet it would be a grave mistake to think that the lessons of H2 apply only to Israel. Europe’s underclasses, inflected by race and religion, are treated as an abstract socio-political problem, with the result that questions of human dignity are all too frequently pushed to the side.

The most impressive aspect of H2 is the way Avrahami and Sheizaf construct a genealogy of the current mess, revealing how decisions undertaken with good intentions ended up making things worse.

For example, Israel insisted that Hebron hold local elections in 1976. This was a principled objective. Unfortunately, once the Israelis realised who was likely to win those elections, they began to deport Arab political leaders.

The most distressing part of H2 is its revelations about Jewish settlers. Once a small group of ultranationalist religious radicals moved to Hebron in 1968, nobody had the will to expel them.

A tiny minority ended up holding Israel hostage, with increasingly dire consequences.

Today, their descendants are members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and dismantling Israeli democracy. After watching H2, the consequences of the occupation of Palestinian territories are much easier to understand. Israel has become Hebron and Hebron, Israel.

We’ve witnessed similar developments in Europe with the rise of authoritarian populism over the past two decades. Small parties whose values explicitly contradict postwar principles of mutual tolerance were permitted to gain a foothold. Today, Italy is governed by a neofascist party.

It might already be too late to stop the trends that H2 documents. But the film can at least alert us to their existence and do what we can to avoid repeating the mistakes that Israel made in Hebron.

Photograph courtesy of ISM Palestine. Published under a Creative Commons license.