Film review: Kindness as vengeance in “Heart of Jenin”

Ismail Khatib in Heart of Jenin.

After his young son Ahmad was shot and killed by Israeli forces in the Jenin refugee camp in 2005, Ismail Khatib was propositioned by the Israeli doctor treating his son: would Ismail wish that his son Ahmad’s organs be donated to children (in Israel) who needed them? After some deliberation — including consulting his wife, the leader of an armed resistance group in the camp, as well as an Islamic authority — Ismail agreed to have his son’s organs donated.

The media manufactured a sensational story (it’s hard to tell how much press, if any, the media-fatigued Khatib family shown in the documentary wanted, or if they got more attention than they bargained for): the father of a slain Palestinian boy reaches out in the name of peace by donating his organs to Israeli kids. What a happy narrative; the legacy of the boy would live on in the bodies of Jewish Israeli children. However, that was not Ismail’s motivation. His was an act of vengeance, of resistance (though it is clear Ismail also genuinely wishes for the well-being of the organ recipients). And as is documented in the film Heart of Jenin, the Muslim-Jewish, Israeli-Palestinian story is much more complicated than that offered by the media looking for a good narrative to sell.

Heart of Jenin draws from well-edited interviews and fly-on-the-wall documentation of the Khatib family and the families of the children who received Ahmad’s organs, as well as Israeli news archive footage. The audience learns that young Ahmad was killed during an arrest “operation” by the Israeli military one morning during the Eid al-Fitr holiday. The Israeli soldier who pulled the trigger (and is interviewed off-camera for the film) was instructed to “shoot to kill any armed person,” and his target was a pre-pubescent boy carrying a toy gun. The film’s climax comes when Ismail finally meets the Orthodox Jewish family whose daughter received one of Ahmad’s organs — after much resistance on their part, and much efforts by the Khatib family.

The message of the film is not that if only there were more brave Palestinians like Ismail willing to “reach out” to their oppressors, maybe more children like Ahmad would be spared such a violent fate (even if this is how the film seems to be marketed). The directors of the film do not play to this agenda. Rather, they present the more disturbing reality: that despite Ismail’s decision, and despite subjecting himself to an undignified meeting with the Orthodox Jewish family, nothing has changed in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Although there are many scenes at checkpoints, illustrating very well the bureaucratic siege that weighs down on everyday Palestinian life, what is most remarkable about the film is how it shows the parallel, profoundly unequal existence of Jews and Arab minorities in Israel. The Arab citizens of Israel in the film all speak Hebrew; however, the Jewish family (the couple’s parents were not born in the country) do not speak Arabic. While the father of a Bedouin boy who receives one of Ahmad’s organs explains the discrimination his community faces (“I’m an electrician without electricity”), the Orthodox Jewish family seem totally unaware that their daughter was in the same hospital room as the Bedouin boy. It is clear that the family — the Levinsons — are incapable of imagining an Arab family in the same circumstances as they, and seem to think that all Arabs and Muslims roam around with weapons, seeking to kill Jews. Meanwhile, the other organ recipient followed in the film is a vivacious adolescent girl from the Druze community. (Another organ recipient didn’t survive the transplant, and two others chose to remain anonymous.)

Yaakov Levinson is portrayed rather unflatteringly — his blind righteousness probably the reason he volunteered to be included in the film. Yaakov characteristically says, upon learning that his daughter (still in surgery) was receiving the organ of an Arab, “of course I would prefer him [the donor] to be Jewish.” Later, in an interview conducted in his home, Yaakov says, without a hint of irony regarding how Ahmad was shot dead in his own neighborhood by an invading army, “I don’t understand why Arabs can work here freely and we can’t work in their villages … we would get killed on the spot.”

In an unfortunate oversight, the filmmakers fail to identify that the Levinson family are colonists living in an illegal settlement in the occupied East Jerusalem area of Shuafat (they are only identified as living in Jerusalem). This context is especially crucial when blue-eyed, fair-skinned Yaakov suggests (again, without any sense of irony) that if things are so bad for Ismail in Jenin, that he emigrate elsewhere — perhaps to the US, or maybe London or Turkey.

So if Ismail isn’t surprised that no hearts and minds were won over with his choice to donate Ahmad’s organs, why did he do it? “Do you think the Israelis liked what I did?” Ismail asks, rhetorically. He answers, they would have preferred he killed a child in a suicide bombing operation “rather than saving one.” For Ismail, it seems, keeping one’s head held high and refusing to bow to his oppressor’s agenda is his way of resisting the occupation, and Heart of Jenin movingly honors his struggle.

Maureen Clare Murphy is Managing Editor of The Electronic Intifada.

Heart of Jenin will be screening at the 2009 Chicago Palestine Film Festival.