Magazine June 22, 2020, Issue

Fauda Is Tribal TV

Boaz Konforty, Doron Ben-David, Lior Raz, Idan Amedi, and Yaakov Zada Daniel in Fauda (Netflix/IMDb)
An Israeli series shows anarchy, tyranny, and a war of cultures

‘Fauda” is the Arabic word for anarchy, and it is now the title of a television series that is proving an unexpected international hit. Superficially it is a thriller in 36 episodes released over the past three years that dramatizes the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, two relatively small populations with irreconcilable claims to territory and sovereignty. To Israelis, the West Bank is historic Judea and Samaria, while to Palestinians it belongs to a historic Muslim trust. According to reports, Fauda is not available on the West Bank, but virtually one and all know that the destiny of their homeland is to be either a prize possession or a poisoned chalice, and they are at pains to follow the outline of the future as it shapes up on their television screens.

In the wars of 1967 and 1973, the majority of Palestinians flew tattered white flags on their homes and then waited to see what would happen, as they had done with previous conquerors. Within living memory, they had been governed by the Turks, the British, and the Jordanians. To be born and brought up on the West Bank is to inherit instinctive knowledge of the various ways and means of dealing with powerful strangers and how to survive with self-respect. Territorial boundaries are an unsettled and unsettling issue inherent in virtually every national-liberation movement, and Israel is no exception. A combination of ideology, exercise of property rights, convenience, and opportunism drew Israelis into the West Bank in numbers that have altered the balance of power in their favor. At present, in round terms, something like five or six Palestinians to every Israeli live on the West Bank.

The producer of Fauda and most of the scriptwriters and actors are Israeli, but with some Arabs as well, each of the performers naturally speaking his mother tongue, subtitled in English. Critics have complained that the series is hidden propaganda. On the contrary, fictional Palestinian characters, especially the women, express animus against all things Israeli with the customary expletives and heartfelt curses. Lingering shots of beautiful landscapes and intimate architecture are the only signs of any special pleading. For instance, in the city of Nablus, where most of the action is set, nothing seems tidy, symmetrical, or even planned, but attractive little alleys twist into other attractive little alleys. Fatal car chases, shootouts, and assassinations are therefore set in a picturesque context.

By way of narrative, an Israeli counterterror unit is shown operating undercover on the West Bank. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians obey the Queensbury rules. Only too true to life, episodes recall the kind of atrocities that routinely make headlines: A suicide bomb is exploded in a crowded nightclub; a bridegroom is shot dead at his wedding; an Israeli girl out on a walk is kidnapped, held hostage in Gaza, and finally shot dead. The gamut of possible responses goes from armed resistance to surrender. In the nature of an insurance policy, one member of a family might enroll in Fatah, the premier terrorist group on the West Bank; another could volunteer for Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood; and a third be dispatched to someplace safe in an emergency, say New Jersey. Some of Fauda’s most controversial scenes involve informers in the pay of Israel. Whatever their motivation, such collaborators are executed out of hand, often in the street. Years ago, researching a book about Palestinians, I sat in on Israeli military tribunals set up to try captured Palestinian terrorists. Invariably the accused claimed that they had confessed only because they had been tortured. Their tales were not credible, but this series has scenes in which men on either side withhold important information and suffer violence at the level of torture for it.

Gradually, at a deeper level that explains the grip Fauda has on audiences, the West Bank confrontation of the moment is illustrating the vital relationship of anarchy and tyranny, a relationship that has baffled other peoples in other places at other times. Palestinians identify with tribe and clan, each of which might number in the thousands. Arab history and literature glorify the support the tribe give to one of their own even, or especially, if he is in the wrong. Loyalty is beyond questioning. The strength of tribal society is also its weakness. The concept of the nation-state is incompatible with it. Genuine representative government has no point of entry, and it is pointless to ask for what cannot be granted. Instead, the Yasser Arafats, Mahmoud Abbases, and Khaled Mashals have exploited chaos in order to seize power for themselves and then make a tyranny of it. Nominally, Palestinians have a presidency, parliament, elections, the judiciary, but these are all by appointment, only mimicking the foreign model. Mahmoud Abbas, to give one example that will do for all, is in the 14th year of a four-year mandate as president of the Palestinian National Authority, and nothing can be done about it. In a moment of crisis in Fauda, the Israeli counterterrorists are cutting corners and risk setting off a regional war. Intervening angrily, the Israeli defense minister becomes responsible for overseeing due process.

The moral of Fauda is powerful and sobering. The small scale of events on the West Bank is deceptive. A war of cultures is underway. Kill or be killed, that is what anarchy and tyranny come down to. The end of that road is the certain ruin of either one or the other party, or of both.

This article appears as “Tribal TV” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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