Film review: “Jerusalem … The east side story”

A scene from Jerusalem … the east side story.

Was it sheer coincidence, sad irony, or just another day in Palestine under Israeli military occupation? My father and I drove through the last Israeli checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem while heading to the Palestinian National Theatre at the invitation of The Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees to attend the premiere of a new documentary on Jerusalem. The car radio switched from music to a news report — a Palestinian home in Jerusalem was demolished that morning by Israeli occupation authorities, leaving yet another Palestinian family homeless. We sighed in disgust but did not comment to one another because there was nothing new to say.

As we entered the plaza of the theatre, we were met by film director Mohammed Alatar. Alatar is known for his outstanding previous documentary, The Iron Wall, which depicts the Israeli strategy of creating facts on the ground — facts that are rapidly precluding a negotiated peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

The theatre was packed. Palestinian Jerusalemites both young and old, staff from the dozens of international agencies based in Jerusalem, donor representatives, foreign representatives, media, and the crew that produced the film were all present. One group conspicuously absent was Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza. Those from Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, Jericho, Gaza, Rafah, and Hebron are all prohibited by Israel from entering Jerusalem without special permits that are rarely issued. The Iron Wall and Alatar’s new documentary, Jerusalem … The east side story, reveal the policies that aim to Judaize the city and control Palestinian demographic growth. The resulting collective punishment is part of a larger scheme to pressure Palestinians into submission or flight.

Jerusalem … The east side story squeezes nearly one hundred years of history into an hour or so of cinema. It mainly exposes the past forty years of Israeli military occupation policies in Jerusalem and their devastating impact on the city and its peoples.

The producer of the film, Terry Boullata, stated at the outset of the evening that the intention of the documentary is to bring the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence to a Western audience which has shown by way of its acquiescence to the ongoing Israeli military occupation that it still needs to be educated.

The film kicks off with a rapid-fire montage of a normal day in Jerusalem. The famous Jerusalem sesame-seed round loaf of bread, people from all walks of life, from all religions worshiping God in their own way, the traffic, the city dwellers, the Old City shops, Jewish kids playing, Muslim kids playing, Christian kids playing, and on and on. The montage makes it difficult to decipher who is who. If it were not for a few juxtaposed shots peppered throughout — soldiers, weapons, checkpoints, settlements, arrests, confrontation, Jewish-only settlements, house demolitions, and many other trappings of a military occupation — one could falsely imagine that coexistence and normal life already exists in the holy city.

One at a time, the film picks up on these abnormal scenes — concisely, succinctly, and with a clear effort to maintain accuracy. Before taking on each issue, historical context is presented through archival footage. Some of the shots are from the United Nations hall where General Assembly Resolution 181 to partition Palestine was voted on in 1947; the battles in Jerusalem in 1967, which ended with Israel militarily occupying all of East Jerusalem; and Palestinian refugees streaming over the border to Jordan in order to flee the fighting.

Many Jerusalemites, including Jewish Israelis, tell their story first hand. An especially memorable account is given by Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political scientist who was deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek from 1971 to 1978. Benvenisti makes a case for the more than 10,000 Palestinians who were displaced by Israel from West Jerusalem after Israel was created in 1948, and became internally displaced persons while still in their city, forced to the east side.

Another moving personal account is that of a Palestinian woman from West Jerusalem, Nahla Assali, who walks the audience around the home that her family fled in 1948, only to come back after the war to find a Jewish family living in it and a plush Israeli neighborhood replacing her childhood environs. Assali ends her somber account with a sentence that speaks volumes. She says, “We live in fantasy, they live in denial, and one day we should both come to reality.”

Another figure who appears throughout the film to add his insight is the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, the Rt. Rev. Munib Younan. Rev. Younan speaks with the clarity expected from a man of the cloth and is unwavering in his demand for both a moral and legal compass to pull Jerusalem out of its dangerous disorientation.

Throughout the film, the selection of music is superb. Arabic and English clips take the audience from one issue to the next, but each song is a deep reflection of the issue at hand. One tune that is repeated throughout is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’ve Been Looking For” by the Irish band U2, a relevant choice for anyone looking for peaceful coexistence in Jerusalem in the 21st century.

One of the most effective aspects of the film is how it tackles the issue of house demolitions. The film meticulously explains how the Israeli occupation authorities have administratively installed a system of occupation that is sugar-coated with a legal wrap, but leads to the same end as all the other measures of the occupation: to contain and control Palestinian demographic growth through destroying Palestinian livelihoods and creating a reality that is designed to encourage the Palestinians to choose to leave rather than stay and demand their rights. One young schoolgirl explains how she came home from school one day to find her family’s home demolished by Israeli bulldozers. Her mother recounts how she sat in the rubble waiting for her daughter to return home from school, fearfully anticipating the shock that her daughter was about to experience.

Experts on the subject of house demolitions testify that once a demolition order is issued by the Israeli authorities, the Palestinian home may be demolished in 24 hours or 24 years. The film attempts to depict what a nerve-wracking reality this creates for hundreds of Palestinian families in Jerusalem whose homes are already marked for demolition.

It is explained in bite-size history lessons how Jerusalem was not only conquered by force, but also how the state of Israel took annexed Palestinian land to enlarge the city boundaries in order to block the possibility of a sustainable Palestinian presence in the city. Meshed with this discussion is the most recent manifestation of Israel’s separation policy: the illegal separation barrier, part wall and part fence, that cuts through Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and leaves Palestinian Jerusalemites in limbo.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is interviewed and equates the Israeli policy in Jerusalem with that of “ethnic cleansing.” His statement is bound to catch the ear of all those on the Israeli right and in US Congress who would like no better than to label President Abbas a non-partner in peace negotiations, as they successfully did with Yasser Arafat.

Rather than spoil it for the reader, I’ll only say that one of most shocking parts of the film relates to the actions of Jewish settlers inside the walled Old City, in collusion with official Israeli authorities. Viewers with a desire for justice will leave the film with their blood boiling, especially when a cartoonish US President George W. Bush is shown speaking — or rather stuttering — about Israel’s illegal separation barrier and says, “This wall is … uh … a problem …”

Alatar made a few comments following the Jerusalem premiere. He said that he did not make the film so that people would like it, because there is nothing to like about military occupation; but rather he hopes and prays that people will wake up to today’s bitter reality in Jerusalem and do what it takes to bring peace to this troubled city. His remarks echo the conclusion of the film that, instead of taking sides, notes that the ultimate loser in this conflict is the city Jerusalem. The narrator states, “When the stones of Jerusalem become more holy than its people, doesn’t it lose its holiness?” It’s a question well worth reflecting upon.

Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in al-Bireh/Ramallah and may be reached at

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