Halfway through the new documentary “Disturbing the Peace,” Avner Wishnitzer, a former Israeli soldier, says that the common ground he found with former Palestinian combatants was “the willingness to kill people [we] don’t know.” Wishnitzer was one of the writers of, and signatories to, a 2002 letter of refusal to serve in the reserves signed by veterans of the army’s most elite fighting unit, Sayeret Matkal. He is also one of the founders of the organization Combatants for Peace, a joint Israeli and Palestinian organization of combat veterans on both sides of the conflict who had dedicated themselves to nonviolent resistance to the occupation, and struggle for a Palestinian state.[pullquote align=left]
The film should provoke discussions of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, normalization, and the two state solution. It should make people all along the spectrum from right to left uncomfortable at different times.
“Disturbing the Peace” which combines reenactments, archival footage, on camera storytelling, and live documentation, tells the story of the creation of the organization “Combatants for Peace.” It is, at heart, a paean to nonviolent civil resistance—though it is neither romantic nor air brushed. Nonviolent resistance has the power to change the world, one of the main protagonists claims in the film’s valedictory address, however, it is obvious that on the political level this specific nonviolent struggle has not yet changed much.
The film runs along two dramatic lines. The opening scenes occur on the day in 2005 that a group of Palestinian combat veterans—all of whom had served time in Israel army prisons for committing violent acts of resistance, or for the intention to do so—and Israeli army veterans—all of whom had also taken part in combat operations—meet for the first time in Beit Jala. The scenes are parallel to an excruciating degree. When the Palestinian narrator speaks, Arab language radio plays in the background describing the killing of 7 Palestinians in Beit Lahiyah by Israeli soldiers. When the Israeli narrator speaks, Hebrew language radio plays in the background describing a series of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv. Each side is scared of a trap by the other side who have “blood on their hands.” This narrative is only picked up again in the second half of the film.
The first half of the film unfolds in the way that one would imagine the meetings of the participants in Combatants for Peace unfold. Stories of ancestral background (Shoah/Nakba); youthful influences (IDF stories/Palestinian revolutionary songs); trauma (relatives killed in wars/relatives killed by Israelis); enlistment (tank corps, air force, elite units/molotov cocktails, stabbings, suicide bombing); enlightenment, in which the humanity of the enemy is recognized. While the parallelism feels forced at times, some of the stories are very powerful.[pullquote]
It is, at heart, a paean to nonviolent civil resistance—though it is neither romantic nor air brushed. Nonviolent resistance has the power to change the world, one of the main protagonists claims in the film’s valedictory address, however, it is obvious that on the political level this specific nonviolent struggle has not yet changed much.
Halfway through the film, the first person stories of the protagonists catch up to the founding of the organization and the opening narrative is picked up with all the protagonists at the founding meeting in Beit Jala.
The second half of the movie tracks a demonstration nine years later on the twenty sixth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s appearance at the United Nations calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state; and the way the group reacts to the 2014 war in Gaza, called Protective Edge. This latter involves the group organizing a large demonstration in Tel Aviv at which both the Palestinian and Israeli members speak.
The film should provoke discussions of nonviolent resistance to the occupation, normalization, and the two state solution. It should make people all along the spectrum from right to left uncomfortable at different times. The film does not spare the viewer the horrific violence of either life in Gaza under Israeli bombing or the results of Palestinian suicide bombing. The governments on both sides (or three sides—as both Abbas and Hamas are implicated) are held up as merely part of the cycle of violence—responding to violence with more violence.
Doing joint Palestinian-Israeli activism by definition means working together and this flies in the face of the call to avoid any type of activity that would “normalize” the occupation. This tension is played out in conversations within the family of Jamel Qassas, the central Palestinian protagonist.
Nonviolence is presented as the way and not only the solution. Everybody will leave the film dissatisfied in one or another. This, perhaps, is as it should be. The film is an argument for a path of the righteous. The only gains along this path so far are the deep transformation of a group of committed activists who have turned from the path of war to the path of peace. It is not clear, however, if they have impacted the larger political reality at all. In one of the climactic scenes (there are a few), a street theatre demonstration on both sides of the separation barrier, Palestinians march toward the barrier on side and Israelis on the other. They meet at the wall and make a joint declaration of a Palestinian state. The Israeli army appears in the security path between the two sides of the wall and disperses the Palestinians by firing tear gas. The dramatic point is visually perfect. The army appears imprisoned inside the barrier, with Israelis and Palestinians on either side nonviolently declaring the end of hostilities.
This scene is shot such that one only sees the area in which this all plays out. It appears that the only people who are there are the players: the activists and the army. There is no “audience”. The larger Palestinian and Israeli populations are unaware that this is happening. This goes unremarked. It is unclear whether it matters to the activists or not.
This is an important film in that it documents the nonviolent resistance which many deny exists. The film on the whole escapes didacticism and lends itself to being discussed and debated. Definitely worthwhile.
To find a screening near you, go here.