Epic Mideast Drama Plays Out in Film Credits

When Elia Suleiman's "Chronicle of Disappearance" opened at a film festival here, he was appalled at what was written in the program. His first feature-length film was listed as a product of "Israel and the Palestinian Authority."

The film, he says, was a product of neither. Though he is a citizen of Israel, as an Arab he considers himself a Palestinian, and not an Israeli. But as a native of Nazareth, which has been part of Israel since 1948, he does not live in the disputed territories considered "Palestinian" and has no intention of living under the three-year-old Palestinian Authority.

But art imitates life, and such conflict-laden, overlapping identities are the central themes that permeate a new genre of film coming from artists whom most Israelis call Arab-Israeli but who view themselves as Palestinian.

In some ways, the question of what to call the 18 percent of Israelis who are Arab resembles the move from terms like "Indian" and "black" to "native American" and "African-American."

Just as the latter two have a more accurate link to geographic history than to race, many Arabs who live in Israel want recognition as minorities whose homeland was until 1948 - and in their minds will always be - called Palestine.

Dual loyalties

But calling Israeli citizens Palestinians, a term usually reserved for Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza, triggers discussion about more than just nomenclature. Can Israelis fully accept and trust fellow citizens who are Arabs if they identify with the Palestinians - the residents of the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war - who are trying to carve out a state of their own?

Will the Palestinian Authority, created by the 1993 Oslo peace accords, also try to act on behalf of Israeli-Arabs when it comes to discussing compensation for confiscated property and the return of refugees - issues designated for upcoming "final status" talks?

The touchy question of dual loyalties came to a head when Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Israeli-Arab professor, became a close adviser to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. One top Israeli official associated with the dovish left wing condemned it as a "dangerous precedent." That rankles Israeli-Arab community leaders.

"As an adviser to Arafat and an Israeli citizen, you are adviser to the enemy," says Suhail Fahoum, the deputy mayor of Nazareth. Israel's largest Arab city, he says, gets one-third the budget allocation of any Jewish city of equal size.

Yet some of the 1 million Arab citizens in the Jewish state dislike the increasing popularity of unweildy names like "Arab Palestinians living in Israel." Still trying to undo decades of mistrust and inequality between the "Arab sector" and the rest of Israel, some think calling themselves Palestinian works against their struggle for acceptance and equivalent government spending.

Arab citizens of Israel have the right to vote, are represented by several members of parliament, and can attend state schools taught in Arabic, but they are still discriminated against.

Facing resentment

Moreover, some Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza view the Israeli-Arabs as far removed from the hardships of Palestinian reality. Some resent them for taking Israeli citizenship, for enjoying higher living standards, or for not doing enough to fight for the Palestinian cause. And on a cultural level, many of the Israeli-Arabs have been influenced by liberal, Western trends in Israel that distance them from the more traditional, conservative norms of the Palestinian territories.

Much of this reveals itself through the work of filmmakers such as Mr. Suleiman and Nizar Hassan, a fellow Nazarene whose second major film, "Yasmin," took last year's documentary prize at the Jerusalem Film Festival.

In his film "Chronicle of Disappearance," an artistic dramatization of his own diary and life experiences, Suleiman suggests the fading of his culture before his eyes. His parents are filmed sleeping in their den while the Jewish state's national anthem shuts down the state-run TV station for the night, a scene in which he seems to mock them for letting the creation of Israel wash over them without a fight. Other slice-of-life vignettes set in Nazareth serve as poignant, comical windows into contemporary Arab society.

Making connections

The film has a more serious second half, when Suleiman - appearing as himself - moves to Jerusalem and seems to become more Palestinian in the very act of living in its disputed eastern half. There, he portrays himself as a suspect without a cause, the subject of silly security raids by toy-like marching paramilitary police. The reality that prevents him from living anywhere but in East Jerusalem becomes clear when his friend Adan (actress Ula Tabiri) is rejected in her attempts to get an apartment on the West side of town because she is Arab.

"I try to connect the different layers and levels of occupations," Suleiman says in an interview. "We live in a place which is namely not ours." His most recent film is a "continuation of some form of search, an [asking] of questions about identity and belonging."

He calls his film undoubtedly Palestinian. "People are locked into their own preconceptions of what makes a Palestinian. Who gives you the right to tell me that I can't call myself what I want? Money ... came from an Israeli foundation, and I used my Israeli identity card to get it, but that does not make it an Israeli film."

However critical he is of the Oslo accords, he says the process of reconciliation has loosened the limits of tolerance. "Things have changed," he says. "I was not able to do this film five years ago."

Mr. Hassan's latest film is about to be aired for the first time on prime time Israeli television, and he can't seem to make it through a simple cup of tea without the interruption of calls to his cellular phone. The first call is in Arabic, the next in Hebrew, then back to Arabic again.

The languages of the two peoples roll off his tongue, as if in spite of the conflict. But Hassan's bilingualism provides great insights into the culture clash created by an identity as both Arab and Israeli.

His film is well woven together by the title character, Yasmin, a woman in jail for helping her brother murder a younger sister who kept running away with an older man. The teenage girl's death is considered an "honor killing," part of old, controversial Arab custom in which some believe that a woman who disgraces the family honor should be killed.

Along with exploring gender inequality in the Arab world, Hassan also delves into sexism in Israeli society in an interview with an Israeli cop who is investigating the murder.

On a leave from prison, Yasmin searches for her sister's grave, which she cannot find. Frustrated, she calls another sister on Hassan's phone and asks for her help - in Hebrew. Hassan says this is because the call was a public act. Many Israeli-Arabs, especially those who live in mixed Arab-Jewish cities towns like Yasmin's hometown of Ramle, will speak Arabic only at home.

Political vs. cultural reality

He does not deny that his interviewees inside Israel have influences that make them very different from the Palestinians in the territories. "The accent, the mixing of Hebrew and Arabic, the clothes, some of the images," says Hassan, "they're not the images of refugee camps."

Hassan has also run into problems with how to classify his film. An Israeli organization that provided some funding disputes his decision to call it a "Palestinian" production.

And yet, when he approached the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Culture, he was told that they would have nothing to do with him or his film.

"We have to struggle to be called Palestinians, even among Palestinians," says Hassan. "It is not our fault that there is no synchronization between political reality and cultural reality."

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