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The Israeli series Fauda, now in its fourth season on Netflix, follows the activities of an undercover Israeli anti-terrorist squad operating largely in the Occupied Territories. In order to track down suspected terrorists, Arab-speaking soldiers in a unit of the Israeli army called the Mista’arvim pose as Palestinian civilians.
Fauda is my favorite hate-watch. Like a lot of people around the world—the series is as popular in the Arab world as it is in Israel and the United States—I find the series addictive. As with its first three seasons, I devoured the 12 episodes of the latest season in just a few days.
At the same time, I find the program hateful.
Though in all four seasons of the show an attempt is made to inject some glimmer of humanity into the Palestinians who are preparing to carry out attacks on Israeli civilians, it is a given that those committing these acts are bloodthirsty terrorists unworthy of sympathy or understanding. Whatever is done to a Palestinian is deserved, and so we side with the brutality of the Israelis. From its first season, Fauda has been an apology for Israel’s relentless war on the Palestinians—a war made palatable in the series by the omission of politics from the equation. Attacking “the Jews”—the Palestinians never refer to them otherwise—is all the Palestinians in the series are interested in; regaining their homeland and ending the occupation are never mentioned.
So why am I, of all people, addicted to this program?
I’m a secular New York Jew who wrote his first anti-Zionist article while still a teenager in college over 50 years ago. And this show is poisonous politically, presenting Palestinians as murderous, cowardly, treacherous, and untrustworthy. The Israelis, on the other hand, are either supermen or superwomen. Gunfights are frequent, and one Israeli is able to fight off and kill countless numbers of Palestinians in scenes shot and choreographed with all the verisimilitude of a Hong Kong kung fu film.
And yet Fauda is so skillfully constructed, so thrilling is its pacing, and so gripping in its narrative that even someone as predisposed against it politically as I am can’t help but root for the fictional men and women defending a reprehensible and criminal system.
A fruitful way to think of Fauda is to compare it to Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. This film sympathetically depicts the ruthless tactics of the Algerian revolutionaries of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) in their bloody war against the “paras,” the more ruthless elite airborne paratroopers of the French army, sent to quell the revolution.
The similarities between the Israelis of Fauda and the French “paras” of The Battle of Algiers are unmistakable: both are fighting national liberation movements that are engaged in an ugly armed struggle in which enemy civilians are considered legitimate targets. Both the Israelis of Fauda and the French units of The Battle of Algiers engage in kidnapping, torture (though in the former case, it’s mainly off-screen), and extrajudicial killings in defense of the colonial project.
But because Pontecorvo’s film takes the side of the FLN as artfully as Fauda takes the side of the Israeli anti-terrorists, at no point in The Battle of Algiers are we expected to side with the torturers attempting to capture the Algerian bombers and prevent future attacks by applying electrodes to their prisoners or dunking their heads into bathtubs filled with water. This despite the reflexive abhorrence we would ordinarily feel for the actions of the FLN fighters that the torture is aimed at preventing. Instead, we are led to feel the bombs the FLN terrorists place in the Milk Bar, the Casino, and at the race track, deliberately aiming to kill only innocent French civilians, are a valid part of the war of liberation.
The creators of Fauda, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz, by contrast with Pontecorvo, from the start have presented themselves primarily as entertainers. Fauda is an Arab word that means “chaos”—and the TV series goes out of its way to portray chaos realistically, using Arab-speaking Arab actors to portray the Palestinians. At the same time, Raz, as a veteran who served in the Israeli army in an undercover special ops unit, even more realistically renders the point of view of the Israeli soldiers.
Palestinian flags are nowhere to be seen, and the daily indignities of the occupation—the roadblocks and the indignities of the border crossings—appear only briefly in season four.
In Fauda, the Palestinians are often driven more by personal pathology than an outrage at historic injustice. In the new season, Omar Tawalbe, one of two Palestinian fighters being sought by the Israelis, is involved in the Palestinian struggle as a way of compensating for the misdeeds of his father, who was killed by his fellow Arabs for collaborating with the Israelis. Omar must be harder, purer than his comrades in order to wash himself of the stain of his paternity.
But his task is complicated by the fact that he was cultivated and nurtured by the highly-placed Israeli agent, Gabi, with whom his father worked and who feels real paternal affection for his young Palestinian charge.
Perhaps it’s precisely this de-politicized approach to the chaos created by the Israeli occupation that explains my own paradoxical fascination with it—and also its even more paradoxical popularity among Arabs sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
The callousness of the Israelis, their contempt for the Palestinians, their willingness to put innocents at risk, and—in this season—their contempt for the sovereignty of other nations, as the show travels to Belgium, Lebanon, and the Syrian border, underline the sheer awfulness of the occupation and the country that has sustained it for 55 years. Doubtless, many Arab viewers would agree with the Palestinian in Fauda who remarks that “the Jews will do anything.” The elision of the difference between Jews and Israel is one of the tragedies of the Middle East conflict. It is one exacerbated by Fauda.
I suspect, though, that the reason many viewers who should despise the show love it lies elsewhere, and this is where the analogy to The Battle of Algiers enters. In that film, the Good Guys were Algerians planting bombs to kill the French colonizers, so we feared for their fate. There were other people placing bombs in the film, the pieds-noirs of the fascist Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), attacking the Algerians in an effort to keep Algeria French. But their bombings of civilians were presented as reprehensible, though objectively they were exactly the same as those of the FLN. But the OAS were the Bad Guys, and the pull of the Good as defined by a film is virtually irresistible. Once you become immersed in a film or series, the figures in it who represent Good become the spectator’s representative of Good, even when the White Hats are not those you’d normally consider White Hats.
A friend recently told me a story of watching a Clint Eastwood film years ago with a largely Black audience. As Eastwood blew away the Black Bad Guys, the audience cheered with glee and appreciation. It requires enormous force of will to set your emotions apart from those dictated by the makers of a series like Fauda, or indeed any well-made film or series. There is nothing shocking about the show’s success, however, one might hate its message. This ability to take you where you don’t want to go and to make you feel what you’d rather not feel is why Lenin could call film “the most important art.”
Mitchell Abidor is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.