Op-Ed: An Oscar-nominated director on why liberating Palestinians is no cinematic dream

A woman with a distraught expression holds the hands of two young children as they hurry amid a crowd
A Palestinian woman and children evacuate from a building in Gaza City targeted for Israeli bombardment on May 11.
(Mahmud Hams / AFP/Getty Images)

In 2013, my son and I sat in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, anxiously watching Ben Affleck name the documentary feature nominees at the 85th Academy Awards. My film, “5 Broken Cameras,” which recorded our West Bank village’s nonviolent struggle against Israeli occupation, was among them. When another documentary was announced as the winner, Gibreel, then 8, looked up at me, confused. “Baba,” he asked. “What happened? Did we lose?”

I still don’t know how to answer him.

In the film, as in life, Gibreel, like so many Palestinian children, has been subjected to relentless state violence. On Tuesday, at a nonviolent protest against Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza and Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, I watched in horror as Israeli soldiers fired at us, shooting one of my young relatives in the head, fatally wounding him. Islam Burnat was 16, the same age as Gibreel, his good friend and schoolmate. When the boys were toddlers, an Israeli soldier killed my own childhood friend; he had been Gibreel’s hero. Our trauma, like that of all Palestinians, is multigenerational.

Now Gibreel is on the cusp of an adulthood that seems to hold no hope for justice, let alone peace. Each night, we brace as Israel’s war machine, at the behest of its elected leaders, rages into our villages and into the homes and bodies of our sisters and brothers in Jerusalem, in the historically Arab towns of Haifa, Yaffa and Lyd, and — from tanks, battleships and F-16s — over our beloved Gaza.


Clawing to liberation from beneath all of this would seem impossible. Beyond the daily aggressions we face here in our homes, we hear the deafening silence of the international community, abetted by that of repressive Arab regimes. Despite the odds, though, we Palestinians are dead set on one thing alone: to live with dignity and freedom.

The morning of the Oscars, my friend Michael Moore helped me rework my would-be acceptance speech, framing it in terms that Americans would understand. “We want what you want,” I wrote on a small card, tucked in the pocket of my rented tuxedo. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Palestinian farmer, activist, filmmaker — and Oscar nominee

Feb. 2, 2013

All these years later, I watch as more and more Americans hear that message and begin to act on it. In Hollywood, where I never gave my acceptance speech, celebrities are beginning to break Tinseltown’s silence around Palestinian rights. Reacting to the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Palestinians in Jerusalem and the bombing of Gaza, actor Mark Ruffalo called for sanctions against Israel. Oscar winner Viola Davis posted to her widely followed Instagram account a primer, “What to Know about Sheikh Jarrah” — a Jerusalem neighborhood where Israeli authorities are attempting to evict Palestinian refugees from their homes. And the singer Halsey ended a tweet about Israel’s occupation with the hashtag #FreePalestine.

I know still more celebrities support our struggle. Many of them told me as much in the lead-up to the 2013 Oscars. But solidarity during our darkest hours is not enough. If we are to prevent the next expulsions or the next massacre, we need an American political movement that elevates our struggle to the halls of power in Washington. To be clear, Palestinians no sooner need America’s endorsement of our struggle than we need the targeting of our people with U.S.-made weapons. What we want from our American allies is something much more basic: to demand an end to your elected representatives’ unconditional support for Israel.

Some may ask: Why should Americans care? After all, the world is only just beginning to reckon with the pandemic’s long-term strain on livelihoods. Racial justice remains an unrealized dream. And along the byways of small-town America, an opioid crisis continues to rage. Besides, goes the dismissive refrain, “those people over there” have been fighting for generations.


Setting aside the lazy myth that our conflict is “too complicated to understand,” one reason to care should rise above all others: Israel receives $3.8 billion a year in U.S. foreign aid, according to the Congressional Research Service. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently questioned all that aid for Israel, saying, “surely those billions would be better spent making vaccines for poor countries.”

Though my friends in Washington tell me that many lawmakers privately acknowledge the absurdity of this largesse, only a handful publicly oppose the brutal Israeli policies these American funds enable. To change this, we need more Americans to speak up against this outsize aid to Israel, which could encourage your leaders to act. Leaders like the 25 members of Congress who signed a letter urging Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken to stop Israel’s efforts to forcibly displace Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Leaders like Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who stands out for her defense of the rights of Palestinian children.

And now Gibreel is again in mourning. From Gaza to Jerusalem to our own village in the West Bank, our lives are consumed by the spectacle of violence unleashed on us with U.S. support. In times like these, my son and I have no appetite for memories of our night in Hollywood. I do fondly remember the morning after, when my wife, Soraya, and I drove down the 5 Freeway with our Palestinian son so he could go somewhere only free children get to go to — Disneyland.

The truth is, we could not wait to get back home. Ours is not the happiest place on Earth, especially now. But liberating Palestine — and, with it, the Israelis on whom this injustice also exacts a price — is no cinematic dream. It is possible in our lifetime. Maybe then I can finally say to my son, “No, Gibreel, we did not lose.”

Emad Burnat is a director who continues to live in Bil’in, the occupied Palestinian village where he shot his Oscar-nominated documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.”