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FLAUNT MAGAZINE

Interview by LUCY KIM

Last year, director Hanna Elias used 129 Palestinian actors to dub Richard Attenborough’s epic film Gandhi into Arabic. In what has come to be known as the “Gandhi Project,” the Arabic Gandhi screened across the West Bank and Gaza, and premiered in Ramallah (Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi in the original, was there, and so was Jeffrey Skoll, whose Skoll Foundation co funded the project). The prospect of peace has been, for well over two decades, a principal theme in Elias’ life and work. A few years ago, when he made his first feature film, he shot on location in the occupied territories using an all-Palestinian cast and an all-Jewish-Israeli crew. When the Second Intifadeh began—the wave of Palestinian revolt against the occupation that began in 2000—he hired bodyguards to keep his Israeli crew safe, then moved the entire production to the east side of Jerusalem, which was considered “less dangerous.” The resulting film, The Olive Harvest, is a Palestinian love story about two brothers, and their passion for the land and the same woman. “It’s a metaphor for Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land!” says Elias. It won the Best Arab Film and Special Jury awards at the Cairo Film Festival, and has screened in film festivals all over the world. Elias captured much of the behind-the-scenes drama on video, and he plans to use the footage in The Making of The Olive Harvest. “It’s to show how we can really work on obstacles together and that we can be creative together,” he says.
When people hear “Palestinian,” I think a lot of folks automatically think, “Hamas terrorist!” Are you militant?
I’m a Palestinian from Israel, raised in a Christian family, and I carry Israeli citizenship. In Israel, twenty percent of the population are Palestinian. These are the natives who stayed in their homes during the Nakbah in 1948, the war between Israel and the Arab countries. Since then, the harassment and discrimination has been endless. But in the occupied territories, since 1967, the oppression has been ten times worse, and we ask why Palestinians are extremists? And nobody knows about this because they package us like, “Oh, these people are Hamas. They’re dangerous.” So am I militant? Yes I am. Nonviolent militant. And I’m angry.
What’s happening in the occupied territories?
Israel is terminating us. I can’t convey to you or any reader what I mean. It’s like someone holding you under water, and you move your hands in the air and you try to breathe, and you scratch their face. Everybody watching says, “Look, look! He scratched his face! He’s the bad guy.” And the guy under the water cannot breathe. He’s dying. That’s the situation. Really. There’s a new law in Israel that says any Palestinian from the occupied territories—the West Bank and Gaza—cannot live with their spouse, if the person they marry is from Israel. See, I am from Israel. So let’s say I fall in love with a woman from Ramallah. I cannot bring her to my village in Israel. It is illegal. She could come with a tourist visa one time, maybe, and that’s it. And it gets worse. Anyone on the planet who marries a Palestinian from the occupied territories, isn’t allowed to go live there with their new spouse. They have to choose: raise a family over the Internet, or move. So that’s one less Palestinian for Israel to deal with, while they put more settlers on our land. But—and this is the law—any Jew on the planet can move the next day to Israel and get automatic citizenship, loans from the government, jobs, you name it. And if they marry anyone on the planet, their spouse gets automatic Israeli citizenship. If you ask me, one solution for peace in the Middle East is to have Palestinians marry Jews, Jews marry Christians, Christians marry Muslims.
But in the meantime, what?
The international community has to recognize that occupation is like rape. There is no such thing as a good rape, a bad rape, and a medium rape. It’s a rape! The Romans occupied Israel, and the Jews were so angry 2,000 years ago. They base their misery on that occupation, their separation from their homeland. They blame the Romans for destroying their second temple. So now the Roman occupation is bad, and their occupation is great? The United Nations discovered that every dollar a Palestinian gets, eighty-five percent of it stays in Israel because we have no industry. Everything, we buy from them. Toilet paper, from them. Chocolate, from them. Milk, cheese, clothes, food, everything! Every Palestinian adult in the occupied territories has been in prison three years, on average! These are the numbers. Which means every Palestinian child has a parent who has been in prison. This is fundamentally wrong.


What is it going to take for things to get better?
I was there working for the U.N. when the peace process was at its zenith—at its most positive. I breathed the air, you know? I saw it with my own eyes. People from Ramallah used to go eat fish and walk on the beach in Tel Aviv because there is no beach in the West Bank, and they passed no checkpoints. None! One hundred thousand Palestinians used to be in Israel daily. Then Israel aborted. It happened in two stages: Israel extremists killed Rabin, who was peace partners with Arafat, and then the right-wingers came, Sharon and Netanyahu, and they wanted to teach Arabs a lesson. The first one is Russian-educated with a Russian mentality, Ariel Sharon, and Netanyahu was brought up in America. What do you infer from this? Israel is like a Western country in a Middle Eastern environment, and this is what we are fighting, really—the West thinks it’s better than us…like in the old books, that some races are better than others. Peace is possible, but it’s not because Israel doesn’t want to get rid of the settlements. Israel doesn’t want to make a settlement based upon equality, based on live and let live. Israel looks down on us! And this is the problem. But forget government. They will never make it happen. We need to make a shift in the human consciousness. The individual can do it. Gandhi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
What has been your most gratifying work in the name of peace?
In 1998, the Children’s Television Workshop in New York wanted to do a Palestinian-Israeli co production of Sesame Street for the Middle East, so I directed and produced there for four months. We did sixty-one episodes, many of them about tolerance and mutual respect, so kids could learn about the other side.
Did you get to work with all the big-name Muppets?
We had that grouch…
Oscar the Grouch?
Yeah, he was there because he complains a lot, right? So for Jews and Arabs, he’s perfect. Complainer! So he’s like the star. I saw how they designed the Muppets and it was fascinating. For the Arabs—for us, the Palestinians—they created a rooster named Karim, because Arabs, you know, “Waah! Oooh! Complaining!” so that rooster is good, and kids could sympathize with that. And we had a girl Muppet called Hanin, very smart, very informed. She brushes her teeth every night! And the Israelis complained so CTW made another smart Muppet, a Jewish girl, which is great! I like when people complain to make something positive, instead of, “Ooh, how come Hezbollah has rockets and we have only airplanes and Apaches?” Israel has a satellite. It’s like a super power! What is this? That’s not how you build peace. It’s not how you seek a place in the world. Why does Israel have two hundred nuclear warheads and Iran, none? It’s like kindergarten and you favor one child with the toys!
I’m glad you brought this up because you were there visiting...
I was visiting my 600 relatives in the village of Jish, which is in Northern Israel, three miles from the border with Lebanon. And here we are at night and rockets are flying from Hezbollah. It was mid-June, my birthday, and the rockets were like a celebration of hate, a rehearsal for a new play, but there was no audience. Then the Israeli soldiers were kidnapped, and now time to open the curtains and the audience comes: CNN, Al Jazeera, everybody, and here’s the new play called What You Can Expect from Jews and Arabs. I never purchase tickets to these shows. I never participate, I never audition, I never approve, I never review. I’m against these plays.
But rockets were flying over your head!
Ignorance, stupidity, and indifference are my enemies. Not building hospitals is my enemy. The greenhouse effect, not giving women in the Third World a chance to be strong and active in society, these things are my enemy. These are the real problems. It’s not about one group of men against another group, fighting each other for some little space. There’s so much abundance everywhere, but we decide that there isn’t enough.
Is a resolution, the nonviolent way, achievable in the Middle East?
Yes, yes, but that means a space has to be made so the people in conflict have a place to meet. And even if they decide they don’t want to play together, then at least they’ll know the rules and how to maneuver around each other. It’s like getting a divorce. You can destroy each other, or you can get a divorce and still be on great terms for the sake of the children. We should do it for the sake of the Jewish children and the Arab children. That’s how we change painful realities—by getting involved, revolve, resolve, and evolve!