Explaining the Israeli Occupation of Palestine invariably involves a history lesson in bad-faith treaties coupled with emotionally charged testimony from maltreated Palestinians and, sometimes, self-righteous swagger from settlers. While acting as a necessary record of crimes against humanity, these tend to neglect the rationale behind the Occupation, and how the daily actions of soldiers reinforce government goals. Leading Israeli documentarian Avi Mograbi, whose films have long forced audiences to confront the psychological toll on both societies, must have looked around and thought, “I can explain this better.” The result, “The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation” is a step-by-step primer, using soldiers’ testimony gathered under the Breaking the Silence project, designed to walk us through the Israeli government’s undeclared strategy for permanently appropriating the land.
Mograbi doesn’t go into why annexing the land is considered so important — that could be the subject of another documentary — and he uses only Israeli voices, though footage of Palestinians being humiliated and brutalized painfully conveys the human impact of government policy. Positioning himself as guide in a direct-to-camera approach resembling both teacher and storyteller, the director connects all these damning testimonies, pretending they’re one example of how a country, any country, can perpetrate an occupation, although he knows full well that the specificity of the Israeli Occupation isn’t exactly replicable elsewhere. Predictably, the people who should be seeing “The First 54 Years” are unlikely to take a look, but the film is an essential explanation of Israeli objectives and the systematic subjugation of a people, deserving international attention.
We’re in a moment when the self-help manual craze is used as a model by social justice advocates — Ece Temelkuran’s “How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship” is the leader in the field — and Mograbi’s documentary may well become the cinema equivalent. Its building blocks are testimonies by 38 Israeli soldiers, most but not all low to mid-ranking, gathered as part of the Breaking the Silence project, which since 2004 has been gathering accounts from armed forces veterans to document the actions of Israeli occupying forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, from 1967 to today. Apart from two anonymous interviews, each man (they’re all men on screen) is identified with his name and the year and location of his service. The film is chronologically arranged into chapters, with Mograbi introducing each section, speaking in English directly to the viewer in as clear-cut a way as possible. There’s no psychological wrestling, no attempt at coming to terms with individual actions and as little subjectivity as possible: The point is to be dryly factual, like a damning flowchart heading towards an inescapable conclusion.
Mograbi kicks off with the 1967 War and U.N. Resolution 242, which was meant to set the grounds for Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories but has been systematically ignored or deliberately obfuscated. He then carefully traces the various strategies used by the Israelis to become de facto owners of the land while destabilizing and subjugating its population. Through a policy of “shredding the social fabric,” arbitrary searches and building settlements, the occupiers normalized their presence on the ground. The First Intifada ushered in the next phase, after it became obvious that Israeli talk of self-determination was mere lip service. Occupying forces were encouraged to use military-issue clubs to beat Palestinians, including women and children, and soldiers turned a blind eye to the destruction of property by empowered settlers. While the 1993 peace accords brought an uneasy stability to the region, the realization that the Israeli government had no plans to relinquish their goal of annexation led to the Second Intifada, with further violence and suicide bombings.
As Mograbi painstakingly delineates, the uptick in violence allowed the government to play the victim on the international stage, using their well-oiled PR machine to spread the idea that Israel was simply protecting its own (the documentary could have made much more of this crucial strategy). The end result is that not only are there no rules of engagement in the Territories, but according to the Israeli party line, there are no innocent bystanders.
Although the on-screen testimony is deliberately shorn of soul searching or notions of culpability, these men have agreed to participate in the Breaking the Silence project (which Mograbi is involved with) because their consciences tell them the official orders they followed were immoral. Given that Israel has universal conscription, the implication is that the entire country needs to recognize that everyone is a cog in a machine designed to annex illegally appropriated land. As the documentary reveals, this military occupation — the longest in modern history — was never meant as a stop-gap before a negotiated equitable peace, but a deliberate policy to ensure complete Israeli ownership.
Incorporating black-and-white and color footage of military atrocities ensures the desired emotional response largely (but not entirely) absent in the testimonies. In addition to Mograbi’s calculatedly relaxed disquisitions, a female voiceover further elucidates various historical markers. The director’s own editing keeps it all rigorously linear and didactic.