Israeli Court Lifts Ban on Film

Times Staff Writer

Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday reversed a ban on public screenings of an Israeli Arab director's film about one of the most hotly debated military confrontations of the 3-year-old Palestinian uprising.

"Jenin, Jenin," described by the filmmaker, Mohammed Bakri, as a fact-based documentary but denounced by Israeli critics as false and propagandistic, examines an intense, close-quarters battle 19 months ago in the heart of a West Bank refugee camp.

In weighing the case, the high court did not attempt to reconcile conflicting claims about the film. It only sought to decide whether the country's film censorship board had overstepped its bounds last year when it banned public screenings of the work in Israel.

The three judges' unanimous verdict: The censors went too far.

The ban "unnecessarily violated freedom of speech, and contradicts basic principles of human liberty," Justice Dalia Dorner wrote. "The censorship board isn't authorized to decide what is the truth and what is a lie."

Bakri, who had appealed the film board's ruling, called the decision a victory for free speech.

"I'm proud that justice was done and the truth came to light," he told reporters. "Every truth has two sides -- our side and your side -- and the two truths are one big truth."

Israeli military reservists who took part in the eight-day battle, together with the families of slain Israeli soldiers, were outraged by the decision and vowed to continue efforts to block screenings.

"You are a liar, you hate Israel!" David Zangen, a physician who served as a medic during the fighting, shouted at Bakri outside the courtroom.

"If you believe this film, those who fell in battle and risked their lives did so in vain, and their lives were worthless," Hagai Tal, whose brother Roi was killed in Jenin, told Israel Radio.

Throughout the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one constant theme has been the two sides' widely differing interpretations of violent events. But rarely have these competing narratives diverged so sharply as they did in the wake of the Israeli army's April 2002 incursion into Jenin.

The fighting in the camp -- in the final days of a massive West Bank military operation launched in response to a string of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel -- left 23 Israeli soldiers and 52 Palestinians dead, and reduced a large area of a tightly packed slum to rubble.

Palestinians insisted at the time that a massacre of hundreds of civilians had taken place, a claim that was never substantiated and eventually was quietly dropped by their officials. However, Palestinians and several international human rights groups have stood by allegations that war crimes took place during the incursion.

Israel maintains that the operation, aimed at rooting out militants who had taken refuge in the camp, was carried out with the greatest restraint possible under the circumstances. It says its army's high casualty toll was a consequence of the decision to eschew airstrikes and instead send troops on foot into the camp's narrow, winding alleyways.

Israeli critics of "Jenin, Jenin" vehemently object to a scene that shows an Israeli tank rumbling toward Palestinians. Just before the tank reaches the crowd, the screen goes black, leaving some viewers with the impression that people in the crowd were crushed -- which did not happen.

Bakri has said that in making the film he relied solely on actual events and the testimony of witnesses, but he acknowledged using dramatic techniques meant to evoke the terror of civilians caught in the fighting.

In banning the 53-minute film last December, the Film Ratings Board cited what it called a "distorted presentation of events in the guise of democratic truth."

At the time of the ruling on Bakri's film, "Jenin, Jenin" had been screened publicly only three times in Israel but had already struck a raw nerve.

Following Tuesday's ruling, Tel Aviv's principal art house cinema, Cinematheque, announced that it would screen the film Dec. 8. The families of 15 slain soldiers have appealed.

In addition, Bakri is the target of a defamation suit by five reservists who took part in the Jenin operation.

Bakri's film prompted Israeli filmmaker-reservist Gil Mezuman, who was present during the battle, to issue a cinematic retort, in the form of his own documentary, "Jenin Diary: The Inside Story."

The film board's ban on "Jenin, Jenin" applies only in Israel, and the film has been making the rounds at international festivals, where it has been generally well received. Bakri said he hoped the film would eventually be shown on Israeli television.

"The court ruled that the viewer would decide," said Israeli legal commentator Moshe Negbi. "So the viewer will decide."

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