Bring up the bodies, BIFFes

By: Marcy Newman

Bangalore moves forward with its month-long ‘Israel 66 Film Festival’ amidst the collective ‘punishment’ of Palestinian civilians living in a hermetically sealed, open-air prison from which they cannot flee

Whether it was the East India Company-induced famine of Bengal in 1769 or the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919, it is clear that the British Empire employed collective punishment to control and discipline its subjects. Of course, this was long before the 1949 Geneva Convention rendering it illegal under international law.

Just as India experienced collective punishment under colonialism, so too do the Palestinians whether in Gaza, the West Bank, or Israel. In each setting, a civilian population is targeted by Israelis fueled by racism. Last month when three Israeli settlers in the West Bank went missing, the Israeli military launched a massive assault on Palestinians in the Hebron area—even though they had already found their bodies. Palestinians were subjected to a military closure of their city, nine Palestinians were killed, and 500 arrested. In Jerusalem, a Palestinian sixteen-year-old, Mohammad Abu Khdeir, was burned alive by Israelis seeking revenge. His cousin, Tarek Abu Khdeir, a fifteen-year-old Palestinian American visiting his family in Jerusalem, was savagely beaten by Israeli police.

Israel claims Hamas is responsible for the death of these settlers, but they have not revealed any evidence. Instead, seven days after they made public the teenagers’ murders, Israel began carrying out an extensive air, land, and sea military bombardment of the Gaza Strip. After one week, Israel has killed 172 Palestinians, 34 children, and 28 women in Gaza and wounded many more. Eighty percent of all these casualties are civilians. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blames the victims for their own demise to rationalise targeting civilian infrastructure.

In the midst of this collective punishment of Palestinian civilians living in a hermetically sealed, open-air prison from which they cannot flee, Bangalore moves forward with its month-long “Israel 66 Film Festival” as a part of the Bangalore International Film Festival (BIFFes). While this event was likely planned some time ago, it is not a coincidence that such an event coincides with an Israeli massacre of Palestinians. After killing 1,391 Palestinians in Gaza during “Operation Cast Lead”, Israel sent out a wide array of cultural ambassadors to various countries to conceal its war crimes.

Most of the time these “ambassadors” are supported financially by the Israeli government; often a local consulate promotes their work. This is certainly the case of the “Israel 66 Film Festival”, which the Consulate General of Israel in Bangalore is sponsoring. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (PACBI) guidelines asks people of conscience to boycott such cultural programs that are “funded by the Israeli state or colluding institutions specifically to help with the state’s propaganda or ‘rebranding’ efforts aimed at diluting, justifying, whitewashing or otherwise diverting attention from the Israeli occupation and other violations of Palestinian rights and international law”.

There are many Indians, even those who consider themselves to be Palestinian allies, who believe that art should be above the political fray because it enables us to share our common humanity. But when art deliberately distracts us from the reality of life and death in order to humanise the coloniser and dehumanise the colonised, do we still share a common humanity? Menahem Kanafi, Israel’s Consul General in Bangalore, told The Hindu last week, that he hoped the film festival would “point out universal connections between Israeli and Indian art and life”. These films help audiences to identify with their Israeli subjects and see a commonality between them, promoting the notion that Indians and Israelis share a kinship.

These cultural ties between Indian and Israeli institutions help to normalise a relationship that extends beyond the cultural realm. Just last week Defence Secretary R K Mathur visited Tel Aviv to discuss deepening their collaboration; India is already one of Israel’s largest weapons importers. It seems odd that a country that knows what it means to endure a military occupation by a foreign people would readily agree to engage in this type of relationship.

Just as Indians fought their British occupiers with whatever means at their disposal—at times weapons and at times boycott—Palestinians, many of whom are inspired by India’s history of freeing itself from British rule, aspire to achieve liberation through boycott. Equally moved by the South African struggle against apartheid, Palestinians extended their boycott campaign to the realm of culture because so much Israeli culture, including its film industry, is state-funded.

In 2012 I saw Susan Youssef’sHabibiat BIFF, which was the first feature film to be filmed in Gaza. Is it too much to ask that we view such films so we can consider the common humanity we share with Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel? Is it too much to empathise with a population that is continually subjected to military invasions without anywhere to flee because its air, land, and sea borders are militarily controlled by the occupying power bombarding it? Is it too much to ask BIFF to screen Palestinian films like Anne-Marie Jacir’s When I Saw You or Hany Abu-Asad’s Oscar-nominated Omar? Or do we want to be complicit in financially supporting government-produced film festivals that are created for the sole purpose of whitewashing their war crimes?

Marcy Newman is a Bangalore-based independent scholar and author of The Politics of Teaching Palestine to Americans and a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel

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