Early in October 2015, a video emerged showing Israeli soldiers, disguised as Arabs, infiltrating a Palestinian protest and shooting an unarmed protester in the leg. The Israeli army sends undercover units like this one to many Palestinian protests. The units are known as mistarvim, and they have been seen throwing stones at Israeli soldiers who respond to the protests. In this case, the Israeli army claimed that the soldiers shot the protestor in order to “disable the central suspect”.
This phenomenon is not well known in America, but it is familiar to Palestinians who have had experiences with the disguised soldiers, and to Israelis who have served in the occupied territories or heard stories about them. Recently, these units have become a popular topic of discussion because of a new television drama, Fawdah, which is about an elite unit of mistarvim. (Fawda is the Arabic word for chaos or disorder, and is also a code word used by the Israeli army when an operation is compromised). The show centers on Doron, who has retired from the unit but is dragged back in to serving in order to hunt down a legendary terrorist named Abu Ahmed, or “The Panther.” Abu Ahmed was previously thought to be dead, and Doron feels a personal responsibility to hunt him down.
Fawdah has become one of the most popular shows in recent Israeli history, largely because both Israelis and Palestinians recognize it as being very realistic. The show was written by Lior Raz—who himself served in an elite undercover unit and is fluent in Arabic—and Avi Issacharoff, an Arab affairs correspondent for The Times of Israel. Fawdah is shot mostly in Arabic and features many Arab actors. Partly for these reasons—and because the creators of the show posted it online for free—many Palestinians in both Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel, have become fans. This is unusual for Israeli television shows, most of which are only in Hebrew.
The show is especially noteworthy for the balanced way in which it presents the conflict. For starters, unlike many American shows about Israel and Palestine, Fawdah presents the Palestinian characters outside of their role as freedom fighters or terrorists. In American Shows like 24 there are almost no Arab characters who are not enemies trying to harm America. Fawdah portrays Palestinian characters differently. Abu Ahmed, for example, is a sympathetic character: he secretly arranges for an emotional meeting with his younger brother before his marriage, and he risks arrest by meeting up with his wife. During these interactions it is hard not to develop a connection to him, and on some level feel that he is justified in his actions.
Another noteworthy feature of the show is the way that it celebrates aspects of Palestinian culture, albeit from a non-Arab perspective. Of course, most of the show consists of dramatic undercover operations and explosions. But there are many moments where we see how the Israeli mistarvim genuinely enjoy the culture and language that they have learned to imitate. When Doron returns to the unit, he greets all of his old friends in Arabic, not in Hebrew. When the unit has free time, they relax by doing Arab dancing and drumming, and smoking hookah. Poignantly, after Abu Ahmed orchestrates a terrorist attack at a nightclub, the unit sits and listens while one of them sings a song in Arabic entitled “I’m always with you.” While the unit clearly has a complicated relationship with Palestinian and Arab culture, the soldiers also like many parts of it. When Doron ultimately has an affair with a Palestinian woman he meets as part of an undercover operation, it is clear how much more comfortable he seems spending time and speaking to her in Arabic than he is with his Israeli wife speaking Hebrew. This show illustrates how these soldiers are unembarrassed to appropriate components of Arab culture and do so in many ways.In the first episode of the show, the Israeli unit, disguised as workers for an Arab catering company, sneaks into Abu Ahmed’s brother’s wedding. Abu Ahmed is not there, and the unit is ultimately compromised. The soldiers take the bride hostage to protect themselves. Abu Ahmed’s brother rushes at them with a knife, and the soldiers shoot him dead. Ultimately, this tragic death causes Abu Ahmed, in mourning and rage, to plan a terrorist attack. This doesn’t justify his previous attacks on Israelis, but it does reveal the motivation for his next attack, which is far more nuanced than pure hatred for all Jews and Israelis. Many writers have pointed out that it is possible for both Israelis and Palestinians to watch this show and believe that it affirms both of their own narratives about the conflict. The incident with Abu Ahmed’s brother illustrates this perfectly. A Palestinian watching the show might note the inappropriate nature of an undercover Israeli military unit infiltrating a wedding, taking the bride hostage, and then killing the groom when he—justifiably—responds. An Israeli watching the show might note that while this incident was unfortunate, it was necessary to prevent further loss of Israeli life.
Although it isn’t yet subtitled in English, Fawdah is the show that the American Jewish community needs. It has become more difficult for American Jewish community leaders to endorse dialogue and mutual understanding given the uptick in seemingly random knife attacks directed against Israelis. This is deeply unfortunate, because that type of understanding is crucial. Fawdah allows viewers to inhabit and explore an alternate narrative, both its flaws and its beauty. The ability to engage substantially with Palestinian characters and a Palestinian narrative is something that the American Jewish community needs now more than ever, and Fawda could provide exactly that.