Documentary on Palestinian prisoners stirs controversy

A group of the families in collaboration with the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization denounced the documentary as “a direct insult.”

Ofer Prison (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ofer Prison
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A documentary series on Palestinian security prisoners and the Israelis who guard them at the Megiddo Prison stirred outrage among bereaved families last week.
A group of the families in collaboration with the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization denounced the documentary as “a direct insult” and called for an investigation into how and why government ministries gave access to and funded the series.
Making the three-part series, currently airing on YES Documentary, director Itzik Lerner received unprecedented access to the high-security prison, where he lived among some 1,000 prisoners and documented their daily lives, their interactions with the Israeli guards and their hardships.
The prisoners depicted in the documentary include members of Hamas and other terrorist organizations who planned, assisted and carried out attacks against Israelis.
In a letter penned to Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan that received 28 signatories, the bereaved families said they were “horrified” to learn of the series.
“Of course, in the documentation there was no mention of our suffering, of the bereaved families who lost their most precious due to terrorist attacks,” they wrote.
The families said the documentary depicted how the Palestinian security prisoners received “more benefits and quality of life than any other prisoners in Israeli prisons” and certainly more than the minimum they are entitled to under the Geneva Convention.
“We would like to emphasize that the culture and education ministries supported the premiere of the series, as well as the series itself, which was financed by funds that receive money from the ministry,” they added.
One of the key figures in the documentary is Hamas member Abed al-Basat, who was elected as the leading representative for the inmates vis-a-vis the guards. Lerner follows Basat throughout his sentence and upon his release from prison.
In an interview with Channel 2, Basat said the inmates agreed to cooperate with Lerner so that Israelis could “see a different face of the people they consider murderers.” He said: “Maybe it will lead to a small change in their viewpoints.”
Despite this, the documentary shows that many of the prisoners do not show remorse for their actions – with one prisoner smirking about his sentence of nine consecutive life sentences and another prisoner discussing his failed attempt as a suicide bomber – and have not given up on their desire to continue their fight against Israel.
In a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post, Lerner seemed frustrated and surprised by the overwhelming pushback.
“I didn’t expect that it would get to this level,” he told the Post. “I do see myself as part of the consensus when it comes to the bereaved families. I completely understand their pain and their rage.”
Saying “it’s not trendy to talk about this,” Lerner related that he has two sons who were combat soldiers in the IDF, and he barely slept for the five years they were serving. “I myself was wounded in the Yom Kippur War,” he added.
Nevertheless, he noted, “I make films, and I make films that I think are the story of this country... I look for things that interest me. My last film was about settlers,” – 2014’s God’s Messengers, which covered hilltop youth in the West Bank.
“This project looks at both the prisoners and the guards. It shows the duality of their lives,” he said. “Everyone asks about the prisoners, but the entire project... I was asking myself about the prison guards and I think their lives are not less interesting and not less fascinating.”
Im Tirzu CEO Matan Peleg issued a statement blaming the management of YES as “directly responsible for this failure.”
“It [YES] has chosen to use a public platform to give voice to terrorists, with the clear understanding that the content in the series excludes the real victims that are the bereaved families,” he said of the controversy.
“There is a limit to the cynicism and imperviousness of heart and hence the anger and sense of insult,” he said. “The series, it should be noted, is financed by cultural foundations that are funded by the Israeli taxpayer, of which there is nothing more absurd. Israeli society, which cherishes and owes the bereaved families who have lost the most precious to them, does not need to subsidize a series that depicts terrorists as tragic heroes.”
Peleg called on the general public to join his organization’s demand that the administration of YES personally apologize to the bereaved families and “publish conclusions explaining how such a disgrace will not be repeated.”
Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev issued a response to the bereaved families and said that while she had not yet seen the series, depicting terrorists as “normative human beings” could strengthen future terrorism and cause “anger and heartbreak.”
“Since taking office, I have been acting to prevent public support with state funds for activity that belittles, offends and undermines the values and symbols of the State of Israel,” she wrote. “I believe with all my heart that also the thriving democracy of the State of Israel that believes in civil rights, the rule of law and freedom of expression must not support this destructive and harmful activity.”
Regev said she is maintaining an ongoing discussion with Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblitt in order to solidify her vision legally through legislation.
Regarding the documentary, she told the families it was her predecessor, former Likud minister Limor Livnat, who approved the project and the New Israel Fund, which provided the financing in 2014.
Regev added that she has established a committee that is “re-establishing the guidelines for funding in order to prevent a recurrence of such incidents.”
A spokesman for Yes told the Post that the documentary channel does not shy away from presenting complex and multi-faceted issues.
“We share in the sorrow of the families and our hearts are with them,” said a representative for the satellite TV provider. “The YesDocu channel brings to the screen and to the Israeli public agenda a wide variety of content that presents the complex current reality.”
The channel also criticized Regev for her comments, noting that the culture minister admitted “she hasn’t yet seen the show,” which does nothing more than document the lives of the prisoners and guards in a security prison in Israel over the course of a year.
Yes added that it was Im Tirtzu, together with a group of bereaved families, that was responsible for the appeal to the Culture Ministry and that the Parents Circle Families Forum of bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families supports the airing of the series.
In a letter penned by attorney Oded Hacohen on behalf of the Forum, he wrote that the media had been inaccurately reporting that the Forum is opposed to the screening of the documentary.
“Since this is an appeal that is contrary to all that we believe in, which is based on an attempt to quiet and silence, we were amazed to see our name tied to it,” he wrote.
Hacohen said that the bereaved families represented by the Forum support the airing of the documentary and oppose any attempt to silence the series.