by LUCY KIM
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
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
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
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
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
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!