Almost 30 years apart, John Pilger’s two documentaries about Palestine carried the same title, Palestine is Still the Issue. His point was that, in the course of a generation, a great injustice remained unchanged and urgent.
His 1974 film described the flight and expulsion of almost a million Palestinians, who became refugees in their own land – at the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, then as a result of the Six Day War in 1967.
‘What has changed,’ says Pilger on his return to film his 2002 documentary, ‘is that the Palestinians have fought back. Stateless and humiliated for so long, they have risen up against Israel’s huge military regime, although they themselves have no army, no tanks, no American planes and gunships or missiles… For [them], the overriding, routine of terror, day after day, has been the ruthless control of almost every aspect of their lives, as if they live in an open prison.’
The Palestinians’ struggle for their land is the theme of both films. The loss of 78 per cent of land in 1948 meant that they could claim only the remaining 22 per cent, which was occupied by Israel. They fought mainly with slingshots against tanks and planes during their first uprising, the 1987 intifada, and rose again and again.
The curfews, controls, roadblocks and checkpoints governing their lives bear comparison with apartheid South Africa, says Pilger, who interviews both Palestinians and Israelis, making his report infinitely more powerful than if it had given voice simply to the oppressed. Indeed, the majority of his witnesses are Israeli. The longest interview is one of the most revealing – with Dori Gold, an influential figure at the heart of Israeli power.
A Palestinian talks about his sister, the first female suicide bomber, a 28-year-old ambulance volunteer who had witnessed the deaths and wounding of people. He is proud of her. An Israeli father, Rami Elhanan, remembers his 14-year-old daughter who was killed by a suicide bomb. ‘You have to recognise the despair of those who carry out such atrocities,’ he says. ‘You have to ask yourself: have you contributed in any way to this despair. The suicide bomber was a victim, the same as my girl was.’
With Israel controlling the occupied West Bank through Jewish settlements that are illegal under international law, Pilger visits one such settlement. He passes through a military checkpoint and along a road bordered by electrified barbed wire, which was built for the sole use of Jewish settlers and Israeli soldiers – a striking emblem of apartheid, he says – before discovering the surreal spectacle of what appears to be a quiet middle-class suburb, complete with houses with satellite dishes on neat, tree-lined roads.
One of the most telling voices is that of a soldier, Yishai Rosen-Zvi, who has refused to serve on the occupied West Bank and describes ‘the huge bluff of the Israeli establishment’, adding, ‘[Every] criticism of its policies is called anti-Semitism, [when] criticising your country’s policy is the only patriotic thing that one can do.’
His words are prophetic. An orchestrated Zionist-run campaign was mounted against Palestine is Still the Issue, mainly in the United States by groups who had not seen the film. Each email they sent had a generic theme of ‘anti-Semitism’ – an early version of social media ‘bots’. Pilger and his family received death threats.
In Britain, the Independent Television Commission, then the regulator for commercial TV, conducted a three-month inquiry and concluded that Palestine is Still the Issue was ‘fair and balanced’ and had not breached the ‘due impartiality’ clause in the 1990 Broadcasting Act. It praised the film’s historical accuracy, together with the ‘care and thoroughness with which it was researched’. Palestine is Still the Issue won a number of international awards.
Awards: The Chris Statuette in the War & Peace division, Chris Awards, Columbus International Film & Video Festival, Ohio, 2003; Winner, War & Peace category, Vermont International Film Festival, 2003; Certificate of Merit, Chicago International Television Awards.
Palestine Is Still The Issue was a Carlton Television production for ITV first broadcast on ITV1, 16 September 2002