What if ‘The Wire’ Were Set in Ramallah?
A hit TV series has found audiences among Israelis and Palestinians alike with its brutal honesty about the ugliness of war and the complexity of human life.
TEL AVIV, Israel — For 20 years, the Israeli actor Lior Raz has had the same dream.
He is chasing a terrorist down a long hallway, or an alley, or perhaps a dark street. The terrorist turns and pulls a gun from his hip. Raz, in the nick of time, pulls his own weapon and squeezes the trigger. But something is wrong with the gun. Instead of hitting their target, the bullets fall short, clattering to the ground like harmless pebbles. Raz is then left stranded, trapped by his own unconsciousness, the cold metal taste of death slowly seeping into his mouth.
It’s a nightmare, Raz says, that is common among veterans of the Israeli Special Forces.
Some special forces soldiers are trained in intelligence gathering, while others are navy commandos or highly-skilled aerial fighters. But the most famed among Israelis are the mista’arvim, the deep-cover officers who speak accent-free Arabic and can slip unnoticed into the heart of enemy territory.
Military service is mandatory for Israeli citizens, and Raz served out his in one such special forces unit. He speaks fluent Arabic, and has years of training in the customs, mannerisms, and dress of the Palestinians. Like most of his fellow mista’arvim soldiers, his relationship with the Arab world is complicated. These soldiers understand that to infiltrate Palestinian society, you must do more than just study your enemy. You must also learn to love him.
Now, two decades after completing his service as a special forces officer, Raz, 43, is applying his training to an entirely different target: Israeli television audiences.
Alongside journalist and Arab affairs specialist Avi Issacharoff, who himself was also stationed in the West Bank during his military service, Raz created Fauda, a stunning Israeli drama that depicts not only an undercover unit chasing terrorists in the West Bank, but also the world of those terrorists themselves, complete with the wives, children, and mundane family matters that mark them as entirely human. Raz also stars in the series.
The program, which premiered in Israel on Feb. 15 and wrapped up its first season earlier this month, marks a departure for Israeli entertainment. Such an even handling of Israelis and Palestinians is radical for television here, where dramas traditionally stay rooted in the Israeli perspective — or avoid the conflict altogether.
With a majority of Arabic dialogue, a cast packed with Arab actors, and a plot line that makes it clear that both sides are as complicated as they are culpable, Raz and Issacharoff have taken the black-and-white narrative of Israel and its enemies and spun it into all kinds of gray. In war, the show insists, you don’t know if you are right or wrong. You only know your orders.
Raz plays Doron, the commander of an undercover mista’arvim unit who has retired from action and is attempting to bury his demons by working a vineyard in central Israel with his wife. When the unit gets wind that a Palestinian arch-terrorist Doron thought he had killed is in fact alive and hiding underground, he agrees to rejoin them for one final mission.
The terrorist, Abu Ahmed, is responsible for the deaths of 116 Israelis, but he also has a little brother who is about to get married. In the show’s pilot episode, the team has a hunch that Abu Ahmed will risk his cover in order to attend the wedding, so they cook up a complicated undercover mission to infiltrate the hall where the celebration will take place. By the end of the episode, Doron, out of shape after 18 months crushing grapes and living the easy life, gasps for breath as he chases Abu Ahmed down a dark back alley in a village north of Ramallah. He keels over, pulls his weapon, and fires. But the terrorist is too fast, and much like in Raz’s dream, the bullets fall short. Abu Ahmed yet again slips away.
“I know that I had post-traumatic [issues],” Raz says of his time after the army while sipping carrot juice at a bustling Tel Aviv café. Trim but heavy-jowled, he is sporting the same second-day stubble that his character wore all season. “And you know, to heal trauma, many people go to a psychologist and they talk about the trauma. But I didn’t just talk about it. I relived it in the show, again and again.”
Raz’s mission may have been personal, but Fauda has struck a nerve with millions of other Israelis. It has seen week-on-week growth on the Israeli cabler YES, and is now the most-watched program in that platform’s 15-year history. YES, which holds the Israeli rights to HBO programs and other major dramas, reports that Fauda grabbed 60 percent of Israeli viewers, while Game of Thrones and House of Cards, both of which have passionate followings in Israel — earned only 31 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
Weekend news magazines have splashed the show’s characters on their covers, and the program’s white-knuckle plot twists — including suicide bombings, hostage negotiations, and all the other things that Middle Eastern nightmares are made of — are parsed out over office water coolers and in cafés.
“[Fauda is] more than a television event, Fauda is also a political event,” a critic wrote in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot on May 4. “It’s much more than a successful action drama: It is authentic, honest, and painful.”
The program was embraced by nearly every television critic in the country; even the staunchly right-wing, pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom called it “relevant, exact, and thrilling,” and a piece on popular web portal walla.co.il called it “an almost perfect depiction of the insane entanglement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
But Israel has had cult-status TV hits before. Long before In Treatment and Homeland earned Emmys for wowing U.S. audiences, their Israeli predecessors B’Tipul and Hatufim were breaking their own records on Israeli screens. What sets Fauda apart is that, like its storyline, the craze isn’t stuck on one side of the border. Viewers in Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza are also hooked on the show.
Raz and Issacharoff have allowed full episodes of Fauda to flourish on YouTube and downloading sites, which has created a major following among Palestinian audiences. Arab Israelis, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but rarely watch its mainstream television offerings, are also tuning in, and sharing their feedback — some good, some bad, but almost all of it passionate — on online message boards and Raz’s own Facebook page.
Posts on the official Facebook page for the show are peppered with comments from both Arabs and Jews. One Arab viewer, born in northern Israel and now living in Jerusalem, called Fauda, “A sad reality,” adding, “I hope the day will come when Arabs and Jews can live together in peace.”
On Raz’s Facebook page, the praise continues. An Israeli from just outside Tel Aviv wrote to Raz, “We watched the entire series in three days. Because we couldn’t excuse our ignorance anymore. Well done! A wonderful show. The saddest part? The similarity. The enemy who seems loving and the loving one who seems to be the enemy … The humanity you showed in these well-rounded characters tugs on all the heartstrings, on both sides of the [separation] barrier.”
Even the militant organization Hamas, which is given a blistering treatment in the show, has inadvertently boosted ratings. Hamas posted a notice on its own website decrying the show as Israeli propaganda, but in doing so included a hyperlink to a site where the episodes could be streamed for free.
Because the show’s dialogue is so heavy in Arabic, and the cast features so many beloved Palestinian actors, the show has resonated with Arabs on both sides of the Green Line. And in doing so, it has shown them Israeli soldiers who are not just enemy combatants, but fully-formed characters with siblings, stunted love affairs, and dignities they wish to protect. They are in Palestinian streets and speaking in Palestinian dialects, but beneath their deep cover there are rich and compelling backstories.
“This show cut me to my bone,” one young Arab woman wrote on Raz’s Facebook page. “It’s shocking,” she said, explaining that she had never looked at either Jews or Arabs in the way the show portrays them. “I felt like it gave me a slap in my face, and I felt it in my soul.”
For Issacharoff, who reports routinely from the West Bank and is regarded in Israel as one of the nation’s most respected analysts on Arab affairs, Fauda was a chance to force Israelis and Palestinians to look more closely at each other.
“I’m trying to educate Israelis, to give them more knowledge about these soldiers and the way they fight, and I’m also trying to tell the story of Palestinians. The average Israeli, when he hears the word ‘Palestinian,’ he just thinks terrorist. I’m an Israeli and a Jew, but because of my personal background I know there is much more to the story of both sides,” he says.
Many of the show’s scenes gnaw at Israeli taboos about ethics and reverence for the military. In a country where nearly everyone is a soldier and every year seems to bring a new war, even most left-leaning citizens see the army as their protector. While Fauda never challenges this narrative, it does scratch relentlessly at Israelis’ image of their soldiers, digging beneath the uniform to reveal the knotty realities below.
In episode seven, deep into a subplot that sees Doron and his team going rogue and kidnapping a Palestinian sheikh to save one of their own soldiers, Nurit, the unit’s sole female member, starts to question whether the moral potholes she is being asked to maneuver are worth it. She steps outside of the team’s safe house, her pretty face streaked with tears, and turns to Avichai, a grizzled older member of the team, to ask him for advice.
Nurit: I don’t know how you guys do it. How?
Avichai: Did you ever see a fight dog get an order to attack? Did you, Nurit?
Nurit: Yes … he gets the command and immediately attacks.
Avichai: Exactly. He does it immediately. Nothing else matters to him. He pounces with the aim to kill. He doesn’t care if his head gets chopped off doing it. We, Nurit, are just like those attack dogs. That’s how we were trained …We were trained not to think. You know why? Because if I stop to think about [my son] for just a split second, I’ll become petrified with fear. I won’t be able to move.
Nurit: I don’t want that to happen to me. It’s like being dead.
Avichai: Then you don’t belong here. You’re putting us at risk.
The show is equally blistering in its handling of Palestinian characters. In a later episode, Abu Ahmed — cornered, desperate, and with his legacy at risk — decides that the life of his own daughter is less important than the execution of a mission. He issues a near-unspeakable order, and his subordinate, a pimpled Palestinian teen who reeks of unchecked ambition, waffles under the weight of what he is being asked to carry out. But then he remembers his training. Like an attack dog, he pounces with the aim to kill.
“You see that everybody is much more complicated than the posters we like to show,” Raz says, sitting in a Tel Aviv café just days before the finale of Fauda’s first season is set to air. “It’s not just the bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys are the good guys. The narrative is Israeli, yes, but if there’s a terrorist, he may be a scumbag and I may hate him, but he still has a wife and he has kids, and what he does affects his family. It’s here that you get the real story.”
Photo credit: Ohad Romano