March 1 2015
Yarmuk Movie: Kill the Messenger
by Avi Melamed
The article you are about to read was actually written in April 2014. I wrote the article following an eight-minute fiction movie called Yarmuk that was published on YouTube in March 2014. The movie was directed and produced by an Arab director and actor named Muhammad Bakri. The movie was removed from YouTube shortly after it was posted, and – unfortunately before I could publish my article. My attempts to find the movie were unsuccessful therefore I decided not to publish my article.
These very days, after a long search and research, I found the movie.
What is the movie’s background? Why was it removed and by whom? What can we learn from that episode?
In previous articles I have published, I wrote about some of the outcomes of the war in Syria. For example, in an October 2013 Intelligence Bulletin “Desperate Situation in Syria – reports of people eating cats and dogs, I described the humanitarian crisis in the Al-Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus caused by the ongoing siege of the camp by Assad’s troops and his allies, the Iranian regime and Hezbollah. Dozens of thousands of Palestinians have fled from Syria looking for a shelter in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Others made their way to a refugee camp established in Cyprus. Others have escaped to Europe. As of February 2015, based upon a formal report of the United Nations Relief and Welfare Agency (UNRA) 18,000 people inside the al-Yarmouk camp are in serious danger of dying. According to Palestinian resources, 2,648 Palestinians were killed thus far in the war in Syria, 165 died of starvation and lack of medical treatment, and about 100,000 Palestinians have run from Syria.
Another outcome of the war in Syria relates directly to one of the many, yet extremely tragic, aspects of the war in Syria – the Syrian refugees. According to formal estimates, the number of Syrian refugees who have fled Syria is today about 3,000,000 people. Most of them live in difficult conditions in provisory refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. They struggle daily with the tough conditions.
This misery and poor conditions cause Syrian families to marry off their daughters to men from the Arab world (mostly from the Arab Gulf states) for money. In fact, it is female trafficking disguised as a legitimate marriage contract which expires at some point, and then the girls (most of the time) go back to their families. This model of marriage is legal in Islamic law, it enables the families to comply with the strict and conservative Islamic norms and values, thus avoiding disgrace. And so, almost all parties to the deal are satisfied – probably. Except for the girls. On that topic please read my Intelligence Bulletin “Syrian Refugees” (May 2013).
Bakri’s movie – which has almost no dialogue – hints and relates to these two phenomenon.
The movie generated a firestorm in the Arab world.
Arguments were made that the movie is an allegory of the gloomy situation in the Arab world. Those supporting that argument site the fact that the movie was named “Yarmuk” rather Al-Yarmuk – which is the official name of the Palestinian refugee camp. They also argue that the fact that Bakri ends his movie with the title “To the Arab nation” is evidence that the movie is an allegory. Others argue, however, that it is about the Palestinians specifically.
One way or the other, Bakri caught hell from both sides. Palestinians, on the one hand, blamed him for “humiliating the Palestinians” and “undermining the suffering of the Palestinian refugees by emphasizing the tragedy of Syrian female trafficking.” While non-Palestinian Arabs on the other hand, blamed him for “humiliating the Arabs” and for “diminishing the tragedy of the Syrian refugees while emphasizing the suffering of Palestinian refugees.”
Bakri published a formal announcement expressing his apologies. He stated that “had I been able to, I would have gone myself to Al-Yarmuk refugee camp” and that “All I wanted was to draw the world’s attention to the tragedy of Al-Yarmuk camp.” Bakri also announced that he was removing the movie from YouTube and so he did. In this short video, Bakri presents his outlook as an artist.
Reading in-between the lines of Bakri’s statement, suggests that his decision was not only the result of the criticism; it is possible that he was exposed to other pressures, on top of the verbal ones.
This story has many layers.
First, Bakri’s movie reflects the reality. The events described in his movie do take place. As of now, hundreds – if not more – of the Palestinian residents of the Al-Yarmuk camp were killed during the war in Syria. Dozens of thousands flee, heading mostly to Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon.
Arab and non Arab organizations and media platforms document the tragedy of Syrian female trafficking in the Arab world, as well as the exploitation and sexual abuse of Syrian woman in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, the Gulf States and other places in the Arab world.
On another level, the story indicates one of the major reasons for the illness of the Arab world – the refusal of many people in the Arab world to look in the mirror and to take responsibility. Not for the first time, Arabs prefer to kill the messenger.
There is another interesting aspect to that story. Muhammad Bakri is famous for a documentary movie he produced and directed a couple of years ago entitled “Jenin, Jenin.” The movie documents the alleged war crimes committed by Israel during a military operation inside the camp in April 2002.
The facts are as follows. Following a massive wave of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks on Israeli civilian targets, Israel launched a military campaign to restore security and control in the West Bank where the overwhelming majority of Palestinian suicide bombers were dispatched from to carry out their missions.
For twelve days, from April 2 – 14, 2002, fierce military clashes took place between the Israel Defense Force and Palestinian militants in the Jenin Palestinian Refugee camp located in the northern part of the West Bank. Twenty-three Israeli soldiers and some fifty-five Palestinians – most of them armed militants – were killed during the fighting.
The Palestinians accused Israel of genocide, arguing that Israel killed hundreds of Palestinian civilians including babies. The United Nations, as well as the Human Rights Watch investigating committees ruled that these accusations were groundless. Time magazine published a detailed report about the events entitled “The Story of the Battle of Jenin‘ in which it concluded decisively that “there was no wanton massacre in Jenin, no deliberate slaughter of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. But the 12 days of fighting took a severe toll on the camp.”
Yet, Bakri’s movie perpetuates, until today, the Palestinian accusations. Israeli soldiers who were involved in the fight in Jenin accused Bakri of manipulation and spreading lies. Israeli censorship ordered that the movie not be presented publically. In response, Bakri, together with Israeli human right activists appealed to the Israeli Supreme court who ruled that the movie would be screened. Soldiers who fought in Jenin, as well as families of Israeli soldiers that were killed in Jenin, filed a lawsuit accusing Bakri of defamation. Though the Israeli court ruled in their favor, it turned the lawsuit down because it was defamation of “the public” and not of an “individual.”
One last interesting aspect to the story. Muhammad Bakri is an Israeli-Arab. He is an Israeli citizen.
In a way, the story of the two different movies Bakri made – “Jenin, Jenin” and “Yarmuk” is to some extent the story of the differences between Israel and the Arab societies. The difference between a society (Israel) that enables freedom of speech and expression and pluralism – even if it is hard to take and offensive to many people, and between the Arab societies which refuse to face criticism and prefer to shoot the messenger rather than dealing with the challenges. One cannot avoid thinking that Arab societies could have been in a different and better place today had they enabled open dialogue, criticism and different opinions.
Former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs and former Intelligence Official and educator, Avi Melamed today is an Independent Middle East Strategic Intelligence Analyst, regional expert and lecturer specializing in the current affairs of the Arab and Muslim world and their impact on Israel and the region.
His expertise includes: The Arab awakening; Arab perspectives on Israel; Emerging challenges and opportunities in the Middle East; Evolving forces in the region and their current and future impact on Israel’s strategic environment, etc.
Avi has most recently been appointed the Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College with offices located in Washington, D.C. and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where among other responsibilities he leads a year-long program entitled “Inside the Middle East – Intelligence Perspectives,” designed to ensure that the next generation to be in positions of influence in the United States will have a more intimate understanding of the Middle East and will apply methods of critical thinking regarding Middle East Affairs in a way that will result in a more accurate reading the Middle East reality and which will better serve the West’s interest.
Mr. Melamed has a proven record of foreseeing the evolution of events in the Middle East and their impact on a local and regional level.
His knowledge and wide and varied experience offer a behind the scenes insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and insight into future regional implications.
His outstanding analytical abilities, unique understanding of the Arab world and the Arabic language, decades of experience working in Arab speaking areas throughout the region, direct access to sources, and networks throughout the Arab world resources allows him to keep his finger on the pulse on the Arab world and has positioned him as one of the most well-rounded and insightful analysts in his field.
In his work as an analyst Avi provides intelligence analysis, briefings and tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policy makers, international media outlets as well as a wide variety of organizations and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East affairs. His tours and briefings, based on Arab sources, decades of field experience, policy design and intimate connections throughout the Arab world, offer an insider’s view of the constantly-changing Middle East landscape and future regional implications.
In the public sector, Avi held various government and Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions. Fluent in Arabic and Israeli- Jew with a unique understanding of Arab society and culture, Avi spent many years living in Arab cities and communities throughout the region, often in high-risk positions at sensitive times. During the first Intifada he was appointed the youngest-ever Deputy Advisor on Arab affairs to the Mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek and later he served in the Ehud Olmert administration as Senior Advisor. He was instrumental in developing Israeli policy in and around Jerusalem, and represented the city in local and international forums. He held various Intelligence and Counterterrorism field positions in delicate areas on behalf of the Israeli Defense Forces, the Israeli government, and Israeli security and intelligence services.
He is also the founder and creator of Feenjan – Israel speaks Arabic, a non-profit initiative which presents contemporary Israeli society and culture to the Arab world in Arabic, and serves as an online platform for Israelis and Arabs to discover and discuss issues of common interest.
In the private sector Avi facilitates relationships between Israeli and international firms and potential partners in the Arab world.
Through all of Avi’s efforts, as a speaker, an analyst, a writer, and an entrepreneur, he is a bridge builder. He dedicates himself to enhancing the Arabic, English and Hebrew speaking audience’s comprehensive understanding of the Middle East and of each other.
Avi is currently writing a book which will be a resource for policy makers around the world when it comes to Middle East Affairs. Avi has authored two books, Separate and Unequal – Israel’s rule in East Jerusalem, published by Harvard University Press and Ubrusi, A Novel.
He is a frequent guest on English and Arabic networks including Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic, his articles are translated into multiple languages and are available on international news websites.
Avi has degrees from The Carmel Institute for Military Research, George Mason University, and The Hebrew University.
Avi is a frequent contributor in Arabic, Hebrew and English to many news outlets including Al-Arrabiya, Al-Jazeera, BBC, CBN, I24 TV News Network, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, etc.
He provides briefings to many local and international organizations including AIPAC; American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Birthright; Foreign Diplomats and Embassies; Friends of the IDF; Georgetown University; Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation; Herzeliya Interdisciplinary Center; Israel Border Police Senior Command; Israel Defense Forces; Israel Ministry of Defense; Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Israel Police; Israel Prison Authority; Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Jewish Community Relations Council; Jerusalem Foundation; Jewish Federations of North America; Jewish National Fund; Hillel; J-Street; Keren Hayesod; Peres Center for Peace; Princeton University; The Israel Project; Tufts University; University of California, Berkeley; the United States Army; World Bank; World Presidents Organization, etc.