I watched the wonderful animated Israeli film Waltz with Bashir on TV tonight and was reminded of the first time I saw it on a rainy night in a Dublin cinema last year. It was just before Christmas and the film’s bright and vivid colours were an antidote to the grey of Irish winter. The subject matter, a genocide in the 1982 Israel-Lebanon war remains shocking despite the passing of the years. My interest in the film was also piqued by a recent visit to the Middle East. I had travelled overland from Turkey to Israel a month earlier. I avoided Lebanon, perhaps a bit afraid but I was also fascinated by the region and its seemingly intractable problems. So I expected the film to say a lot about Israel and Lebanon and I wasn’t disappointed. What I did not expect was that the film would also say much about the fragile and treacherous nature of memory.
I also thought of the selectiveness of my own memories of Israel. My overriding impression was of a siege society. Though I never felt particularly unsafe, every public building is a terrorist target and long queues for searches are commonplace. The only people not searched are the young men and women in uniform who carried guns into railway stations with the same insouciance as others carry guitars. They carried them in uniform and in mufti. They carried them on the streets and in the markets and the cinemas and cafes. They nestled up to them on buses and trains in Jerusalem’s thriving new city. They also patrolled with them along the ancient chequered streets of the Old City. This epicentre of the Israel’s problems since the 1967 Six Day War is divided by its Jewish, Christian, Armenians and Arab quarters and also by the sensitive and doubly disputed Temple Mount, which is cordoned off behind razor wire.
But perhaps the Israelis are right to feel paranoid. In 61 years of existence, the nation has found it difficult to convince its neighbours it should exist at all. Border travel is only possible to Sinai and to Jordan where a three-hour grilling is likely from suspicious hosts that prefer their visitors to arrive and leave via the front door at Ben Gurion airport. At Allenby Bridge, the Israelis want to know where you have been and where you are going. They want to know where you are staying in Israel. They would particularly like to know if you are going to the West Bank or Gaza.
In asking these questions, Israel is attempting to cover its guilt. Because despite its first world status in a third world Arab region, Israel has never properly dealt with the people it shares Palestine with. Like the Jews, the Palestinian Arabs also have an affinity with their land and they know 1948, the year the Israeli state was founded, as Al Nakbar – “The catastrophe”. Hundreds of thousands were forced off their land and became refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and southern Lebanon.
The Palestinians weren’t wanted anywhere, but Lebanon was particularly difficult. This small but always vibrant country has long been a strategic melting pot. It was already a patchwork of different religious groups before 100,000 mainly Sunni Islam Palestinian arrived. Most were treated with hostility. There hasn’t been a census in Lebanon since 1932 because the powerful Christian Maronites don’t want confirmation the population is shifting towards Islam. The arrival of the Palestinians was a major factor in the complex civil war that tore the country apart between 1975 and 1990. The Mediterranean metropolis Beirut was destroyed many times over, the US and Israelis were dragged in and in the end Syria established a fragile hegemony over the warring tribes.
The Lebanese Palestinians were disenfranchised and living in squalid camps. These camps were the seeds for the PLO which used the cover of the civil war to wage their own counter-insurgency across the border on Israel. In April 1982, a PLO splinter group shot an Israel diplomat in London. Although the victim survived, this was the excuse Israel needed to invade southern Lebanon. They established a buffer zone with tacit American support.
Waltz with Bashir tells the story of this chaotic invasion. The Bashir of the title is Bachir Gemayel who led the Maronite Phalangists during the Civil War. Gemayel was a hero to his people and his face was a ubiquitous presence on posters and walls across Beirut. His Christian militia supported the Israeli invasion (though not in public) as both forces saw the PLO as the enemy. For two months Israel enforced the 40km buffer zone while they negotiated with Gemayel for him to become Lebanese Prime Minister with their support. But in September 1982 a bomb detonated at his HQ killing him and 26 other senior Phalangists. Though it was a fellow Christian employed by Syria who would later be convicted, the murder gave Israeli PM Menachem Begin to perfect excuse to expand the war against the PLO. Israel invaded Beirut, breaching a guarantee Begin gave the US not to do so.
The name of the film comes from the elaborate dance-like steps taken by one Israeli soldier to avoid sniper fire while running across a Beirut street illuminated by a background of a giant poster of Gemayel. The scene is played out like a waltz but it was far from serene. The Israelis overwhelming firepower allied to the Phalangist support soon secured the city. Once in power Gemayel’s people thirsted for vengeance against their PLO enemies. With IDF permission, 1,500 of their fighters entered the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps where the last PLO militants hid out among the refugees. The Israelis assisted their operation by continually lighting flares to assist their night-time activities.
Over the next two days, they went on a reign of terror. There is no agreed list of casualties but the Red Cross counted 300 deaths and said there were many more. The Israelis went further and admitted 800 civilians died. But various Palestinian bodies, including Red Crescent say the real death toll was several thousand. Whatever it was, Israel did not call off the slaughter until a TV journalist named Ron Ben-Yishai threatened to tell the world about it. A subsequent Israeli inquiry blasted the IDF for doing nothing to stop the genocide.
Waltz with Bashir is a film of laughter and forgetting. It was made by Ari Folman who was a 19 year old infantryman at the time of the war. Folman had lost his memories of the Lebanon campaign and was attempting to piece them back together with the help of people he served with. The film received mixed reviews in Israel with some saying he was too sympathetic to the IDF and others finding the parallels between the Palestinian camps and Nazi camps distasteful. The film is banned in Lebanon but 90 people attended a private screening in Beirut in January. Folman was delighted. “I wanted to show young people what war really looks like without glam and glory, without brotherhood of man and all the stupid things you might see in big American anti-war movies,” he said at the time. “Maybe that will convince them not to attend the next war that our leaders are cooking up for us.”