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'Bethlehem': Story of an Israeli Agent And His Palestinian Informant

Yuval Adler’s film 'Bethlehem' unveils some of the mystery surrounding the work of Shin Bet officers and their relationship with Palestinian informants and in the process reveals the disillusionment of the Israeli left's Oslo generation.
Bethlehem film - photo 1.jpg

It was impossible not to notice the unusual sight at the festive screening of the feature film Bethlehem in the Jerusalem Cinematheque: Side by side with the typical Jewish audience that frequents the place, a few dozen Palestinians invited by the film producers were seated in the auditorium. Their presence at the event was a disturbing reminder that they are not commonly seen in the Jerusalem Cinematheque. True, no one bars their entry, but even without explicit or implicit bans, Palestinians and Jews are rarely seen together in movie theaters, cafés, swimming pools, playgrounds, shopping malls or libraries in Israel.

Bethlehem, by the Israeli director Yuval Adler, has been nominated for 12 Ophir [Israeli Academy of Film and Television] Awards. It describes a close relationship between a Jew and a Palestinian. It is not, however, the type of close relationship envisioned by those who dream of reconciliation and good neighborly relations between the two peoples. 

Razi (Tsahi Halevi) is a Shin Bet officer who serves as coordinator of the Bethlehem governorate. Sanfur (Sahdi Mar'i) is his Palestinian informant — the best he has, in fact, as Sanfur is the younger brother of the local commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Ibrahim (Hisham Suliman). Razi cultivates the relationship with Sanfur as part of his job, but along the way he grows to care about the boy and to love him. At the same time, Ibrahim neglects Sanfur, as he lives on the run.

A clip from Yuval Adler's Bethlehem, courtesy of Westend Films.

Sanfur has no choice but to learn to navigate in a world where everyone expects him to deliver the goods — to provide information to one side and transfer money to the other. The “goods” delivered by Sanfur successfully pass under the radar of the deputy commander of the al-Aqsa brigade in Bethlehem (Haitham Omari), in part thanks to the deliberate blindness of a corrupt minister in the Palestinian Authority. Given the world he was born into, Sanfur learns to love, to get close to and to admire people whom he distrusts, to whom he lies and whose lives he puts at risk.

Bethlehem unveils some of the mystery surrounding the work of a Shin Bet officer and Palestinian informants, and that is where its strength lies. The film manages to show how, paradoxically, Israeli secret service operatives are exposed to Palestinian society far more extensively than many from the liberal Israeli left who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians from afar. The film skillfully depicts relationships where empathy and exploitation, intimacy and instrumentalization are mixed together. The credit goes to Halevi, whose acting displays a blend of delicacy and ferocity, as well as to Mar'i, who manages to get through the awkward attempt of the character he portrays to emulate the toughness of his two older brothers — the biological one and his Shin Bet mentor.

The film has its weak points as well, and this, notwithstanding the professional groundwork done, and regardless of its intent, as stated by Adler, to focus on a single story that reflects the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than sketchily presenting it in its entirety. The story is about the scenario that most Israeli Jews picture in their mind when they think of the conflict: A terror attack is about to take place, a Shin Bet coordinator must track down the perpetrator before the latter succeeds in carrying out the plan, and the agent uses the best intelligence tools at his disposal, even though their use has its price.

It is a true story, and the film conveys it in a credible manner. Credible as it may be, however, the film tells only part of the story. As the perspective of Bethlehem develops, the focus is actually trained in one direction — the corruption and unbelievable cynicism of functionaries in the Palestinian Authority and the brutality and perennial chaos caused by the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Hamas militants. It skips over other actions that directly or indirectly affect the relationship between Razi and Sanfur — for example, the expropriation of Palestinian land by Israel and the restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement of Palestinians implemented on a scale that even Steven Spielberg would find too vast to direct.

Bethlehem has been likened more than once to the American TV series “The Wire. There are, indeed, some points of similarity. “The Wire” was written and created by David Simon, a former police reporter for the The Baltimore Sun newspaper. Bethlehem was co-written by Adler and Ali Waked, a former correspondent in the occupied territories for the Israeli news website Ynet. Thus, the creators of the TV series and the filmmakers drew on their familiarity with an area and its people. In both cases, they based their work on exhaustive, in-depth research that ensured adherence to reality.

Unlike Bethlehem, however, “The Wire” stands out not only thanks to Simon's meticulous groundwork, but also because of its realistic and unbiased portrayal of the city of Baltimore, highlighting the disintegration of its public institutions, the takeover of local politics by private capital and organized crime, the problems of labor, the school system, its slums and the effect of institutional politics on the life of the individual and the interaction between the two.

While the creators of Bethlehem cannot be expected to achieve in less than two hours what a TV series running for five seasons can do, within its narrow time frame, the film shows a calculated preference for the Israeli side of the equation. Its bias toward the Israeli perspective calls to mind Zero Dark Thirty, the film directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

In her movie, Bigelow deals with the harsh criticism leveled at the United States following the exposure of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in the wake of leaks about torture at Guantanamo Bay and after hundreds of Iraqi and Afghan detainees revealed that they had been imprisoned without cause and even though they could not provide US intelligence services with relevant intelligence.

Bigelow suggests a complicated reality in Zero Dark Thirty. Rather than deny the allegations, she presents a ruthless investigation of a terrorist and thus unveils the reason surrounding such investigations, previously exposed only in reports by pesky humanitarian organizations. She figured that she would thus score points for her honesty and integrity by acknowledging what US authorities had done and, indirectly — and that’s the other side of the deal — convey to viewers the idea that such investigations were indeed justified. Indirectly, she has the objectionable actions lead to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Adler seems to be affiliated with the Israeli left. He also belongs to the generation that came of age during the Oslo Accords. His protagonist is a young man born at that time. Regardless of whether he meant it intentionally, Oslo is a bulky, disfigured and graceless corpse Adler is lamenting in his film. In any event, backed by thorough field research, Adler in his lamentation gives voice to the wailing typical of his contemporaries from the left. It is a generation that had a dream, but now has a disillusioned view of reality. Is Bethlehem that disillusioned view?

Gitit Ginat is an independent journalist. For the last decade, she has covered International stories for Haaretz Weekend Magazine and was a culture critic for the online edition of TLV City Mouse.

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