Palestinian, Israelis grapple with conflict on camera, and on panel

In the politically charged lexicon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one word can make a world of difference. And so it was with a panel discussion at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre following last week’s showing of “Behind Enemy Lines.” Featuring the filmmakers as well as the subjects of documentaries in the festival, the discussion departed from its generally genteel tone when it came time to define “occupation.”

“The occupation is evil,” said Adnan Joulani, a Palestinian journalist and one of the two main subjects of “Behind Enemy Lines.”

The remark, which drew both scattered applause and hissing from the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival audience, was followed by a response from the film’s director, Dov Gil-Har.

“The occupation is bad. Not evil.” Gil-Har said. “Evil is when people strap explosives on themselves and kill babies.”

Although the July 25 panel, moderated by SFJFF founder Deborah Kaufman, also included filmmakers Hilla Medalia (“Daughters of Abraham”), Marjan Safinia (“Seeds”) and two teens from the movie, the most pointed dialogue occurred between the principal participants of “Behind Enemy Lines.” Ironically, the film portrayed the frayed friendship between Joulani and Benny Hernes, a captain in the Israeli police force.

When asked by audience members how the film — in which they visit such sites as the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a Jenin refugee camp — had impacted their friendship, which was forged during a “peace trip” to Japan four years ago, both Joulani and Hernes expressed personal warmth for one another. Yet neither was able to isolate their friendship from the political realities that hovered over them.

Hernes praised Joulani as someone whom he respected, admired and perceived as an advocate for peaceful coexistence.

“However, Adnon is one of the few peace-seeking people on the Palestinian side,” Hernes added to scattered hisses, which prompted him to remark that he was voicing “only his opinions,” and that “This [the United States] is a free country, right?”

For his part, Joulani thought that Adnon would make a great Israeli leader someday, but, at the same time, implied that talking with Hernes was akin to listening to an officially sanctioned Israeli army press release.

If there was a point of consensus, it was on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s incompetence — although there was disagreement on the reasons underlying his incompetence.

“The Palestinians deserve a decent honest leadership, not a pop star like Yasser Arafat,” said Gil-Har. “Ariel Sharon is trying to disengage from the Gaza Strip, but he is [hampered] by the lack of leadership on the Palestinian side. Arafat’s one-man show has got to go.”

Responded Joulani: “It’s naive to think that the Sharon administration is an administration of peace. What he is trying to do is get out of the swamp called the Gaza Strip in order to avoid making tougher decisions ahead.”

Joulani, who reiterated his opposition to suicide bombings on several occasions, also rebuked Arafat’s administration, although he added that more than 50 years of occupation has created a situation in which stable leadership is next to impossible.

In a closing sound bite that flipped an American anti-war paradigm, Joulani said, “This occupation has resisted protest by any means,” adding that many Palestinians protesters who eschew violence are still subjected to physical retaliation.

The discussion did contain some kernels of hope, however. Adir, an Israeli teen who was in “Seeds,” commented that perhaps peace is a concept best left to the younger generations.

“Building a real peace is going to take more than just a treaty,” said the floppy-haired teen whose last name was withheld. “For me it took sleeping in the same bunk bed with a Palestinian to achieve peace. Because peace is built upon friendship."