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It takes a village to humanize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Budrus is a Palestinian village just inside the West Bank. "Budrus" is also a documentary about what happened in that village when Israeli authorities tried to use some of its land -- cherished olive groves -- to build a security fence separating Arab from Jew or, as has too often been the case, terrorist from target. The villagers resisted, the Israelis insisted, and in the end an agreement was reached. On paper, it looks like a compromise. On film, it's an Israeli rout.

I can commend "Budrus" for several reasons. It is not one of those films that embraces the present while ignoring the past. Israel's security fence, cinematically charmless, is often likened to a harsh product of an apartheid policy or mentality. "Budrus" explains, though, that the barrier, which in some places is a wall, is seen as a necessity, not much different from the fence going up on the U.S.-Mexico border or the lovely stucco walls of America's gated communities. The wall keeps out terrorists. In "Budrus," even the Palestinians concede that point.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost wrote in his poem "Mending Wall" -- and Israel's security fence is no exception. Maybe the fact that it would be hated no matter what prompted the authorities to proceed in an ugly way. In the case of Budrus, the fence's construction supposedly required the uprooting of some of the village's olive trees. Maybe an engineer thought it was cheaper to do that than work around the trees, or maybe someone in authority just felt vindictive. Soon, Israel had to bring in additional troops.

Here again, the movie eschews the cliche. One of the Israeli soldiers is an attractive woman. She has a job to do and it is clear she does it without much relish. At least on one occasion, she uses force -- whacking a Palestinian woman with her baton -- but she takes no glee in it and expresses appreciation -- although not sympathy -- for the plight of the Palestinians. Everyone in the region knows the importance of olive trees.

As for the Palestinians, they, too, are humanized. They have suffered mightily and now -- for reasons they cannot fathom -- their land is being taken from them. One of the villagers, activist Ayed Morrar, organized passive resistance -- not the usual rock-throwing but nonviolence instead. Even the women participate, a departure for Palestinian society and a tactic that throws the Israelis off balance.

Soon, the villagers attract allies -- young Israeli peace activists. Now, the Israeli soldiers have to contend with their fellow Israelis. For critics of Israel, this is a bracing and unsettling moment. The Palestinians are the good guys -- but so are the young Israeli peace activists. If this could happen in any Arab country, I'd like to know its name.

Those of us who have watched Israel trying to control the West Bank have always wondered why the Palestinians have not tried passive resistance. This is what Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King did -- and Israel is weak in the way Britain and America are. It has a conscience.

In the end, Israel moved the fence. It compromised. Most of the olive trees were spared, and the barrier was kept back from an elementary school. Hamas and Fatah cooperated with the Israeli peace activists and to a degree with the army. It was a genuine kumbaya moment.

Stephen M. Walt, a professor at Harvard and co-author along with John Mearsheimer of the extremely controversial book "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," has for some time been carrying on a running dialogue with almost anyone to make the point that supporting Israel is not in America's best interest. In the sense that America's best interest has to do with oil and Muslim nations and fighting Islamic radicalism, he is right. But if America's interest is enlarged to encompass shared values, he is wrong. It is in America's interest to support Israel.

But "Budrus" the film and Budrus the village are emblematic of why America's support for Israel is being questioned. The pretty Israeli soldier aside, those appealing peace activists aside, the eventual compromise aside -- the awful sight of cranes yanking olive trees into the air sinks the heart. The current leaders of Israel, intent on expanding settlements and thus retaining the West Bank, ought to see "Budrus" in a theater. They won't like the film, but they won't like the audience's reaction even more.

cohenr@washpost.com


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