The movie The Attack is about a successful Israeli-Palestinian surgeon, Dr. Amin Jaafari, who appears to be fully assimilated into Tel Aviv society. But his life turns upside down when the police inform him that his beautiful wife, Sihem, was the suicide bomber who blew herself up in a crowded Tel Aviv restaurant, killing 17 people, including children, and injuring scores of others.
Ironically, before he receives the news about his wife’s complicity, Amin is among the surgeons who treat the injured victims who are rushed to the hospital where he works. At first, he refuses to believe that Sihem was the bomber, but his conviction is shaken when he receives a posthumous letter from her, confirming that she was responsible for the crime.
But Sihem’s letter answers only one of Amin’s many questions; he seeks to understand not only his wife’s action, but also where he himself, a Palestinian-Israeli, fits in. In search of answers, Amin travels to Nablus to meet with his family members, most of whom express anxiety and displeasure over his queries. He also meets with two religious leaders, an imam and a Christian priest, who he suspects influenced his wife. During his visit, Amin discovers that Sihem became a symbol of Palestinian resistance. Her image is distributed in postcards, key chains and posters depicting her as a hero.
Based on a novel by Algerian author Yashima Khadra, the movie is a work of art, not an essay about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet the conflict serves as a powerful background to the personal story of Dr. Jaafari. Through the movie we learn about the daily humiliation that Palestinians suffer under Israeli rule, such as police check points, a security wall that infringes into Palestinian areas and the harshness of Israeli soldiers as they search for Palestinian suspects.
Sihem seems to encapsulate the Palestinian predicament when she tells her husband that she doesn’t want to have children because she doesn’t want them to grow up without a homeland. This suffering leads to the radicalization of Palestinian society: hate-filled sermons by religions leaders, violence (which is only implied during Amin’s visit to Nablus, yet is quite palpable) and the glorification of suicide bombers.
The ongoing conflict inflicts a heavy toll, physical and moral, on the Israelis too. They live under constant fear of terrorist attacks, which necessitates security measures, some of which are contrary to core democratic values. Some Israelis, seeking revenge, resort to taking the law into their own hand (in the movie, Dr. Jaafari’s home is ransacked by hooligans). On a broader scale, Israel is compelled to regularly use coercive means to maintain control over the Palestinian areas – indeed over another people that do not want to live under occupation.
But The Attack also highlights the humanity of both sides. Amin’s Jewish friends continue to support him even after the revelation that his wife was a terrorist. Even the security forces treat him with restraint. Despite the “ticking bomb” situation, they refrain from using physical violence, let alone torture, although some would say that sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Amin’s family in Nablus is warm, hospitable and caring.
Even the suicide bomber (played by the Israeli actress Raymond Amsalem) is far from the demonic personality that we attribute to terrorists. She is beautiful and sensitive, creating within us a sense of dissonance: how can a person who looks and behaves like her commit such a heinous crime. Indeed, some Israeli critics have complained about what they see as an attempt to humanize suicide bombers.
What motivates suicide bombers to commit their act?
The analogy to soldiers who risk their lives in the battlefield doesn’t really help. Repeated studies have shown that the primary reason for soldiers’ willingness to risk their life and assault the enemy – acts contrary to the most basic of human instincts – is not patriotism (although it plays an important role). It is, rather, a sense of manliness together with a sense of camaraderie: men would rather die than be viewed, by themselves or by their comrades, as cowards.
But suicide bombers act alone, and contrary to soldiers, who, irrespective of the odds on the battlefield, always hope to come out alive, suicide bombers choose certain death. The problem is further compounded by the disturbing – and totally incomprehensible – reaction of parents of suicide bombers, who frequently express the hope that their other children will follow the path of the “martyred” child. The movie does not really make the phenomenon of suicide bombing more understandable to us, except, perhaps, for the allusion that a sense of victimhood, in its extremity, is a powerful drive.
The politically charged environment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict informs The Attack from beginning to end. But the movie is also about the mystery of relations between people (in this case between husband and wife); about our inability to really know and understand the other, including the one with whom we have the most intimate relationship. And, perhaps, it is also about the human being’s lack of capacity for happiness, even when, seemingly, all goes well (as a somewhat simplistic view of Sihem’s comfortable life in Tel Aviv would imply).
Andre Maurois, a prolific and popular French writer between the two world wars, gave these sentiments the most eloquent expression when he observed that most of human existence is neither extreme nor tragic, yet: we know that in his daily life man is ever, to a greater or a lesser degree, hag-ridden. Even when all goes well, all does not go perfectly well. Life remains, on the face of it, absurd. What is the meaning of this strange carnival? Why are we here on this fleck of mud, revolving in darkness?…We want peace, concord and the affection of other peoples, and lo and behold here we are at war, massacring and being massacred.
Or again we are in love with a woman who at times seems to love us in return and, at others, for no reason known to us, grows cold and distant. We do not understand the universe; we do not understand those who hate us; we do not understand those who love us; often we do not even understand our parents, our children. We do not understand ourselves. (Quoted in Sarah Bakewell, “Two Loves,” The New Yorker, November13, 2012.)
Unfortunately, The Attack has been banned in Lebanon (the movie’s director is Lebanese) and other Arab countries, apparently because its portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too balanced. It featured, however, in a film festival in Israel, where it was well-received. In the final analysis, art cannot resolve longstanding political conflicts. But by compelling the antagonists to recognize the humanity in the other side, it can, perhaps, contribute to a process that would lead to reconciliation and peace.
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