AL-EIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank: A U.S. director’s short film about an Israeli army raid in a Palestinian refugee camp ends with a surprise involving a rabbit – though not one pulled from a hat. The story of “The Warren” is meant to question the ways Israelis and Palestinians see each other after decades of occupation and conflict.
The diverse cast and crew – Arabs and Jews, locals and foreigners – struggled with those issues off camera as well during several days of filming in Al-Ein camp, a former militant stronghold near Nablus.
In identity-bending twists, those playing Israeli soldiers included a conscientious objector who quit the Israeli military to protest its practices in the West Bank; a former conscript whose unit patrolled the camp a decade ago; and six members of the Palestinian security forces who donned Israeli army uniforms as extras, and were also asked to protect the two Israelis.
The two ex-soldiers said they revealed their identities only to a few camp residents to stay safe – although their cover story of being foreigners was hard to maintain once they started bellowing orders in unaccented Hebrew.
Producers, meanwhile, had to bring in props from Israel that might have raised suspicion had they been stopped at Israeli checkpoints, including rented Israeli military uniforms and M16 rifles that had been rendered unusable.
“The drama of the production exceeded [that of] the film,” said Guy Elhanan, 35, the actor who plays an Israeli captain leading his unit into a house in search of a wanted Palestinian.
The 10-minute film follows the soldiers as they raid and ransack the house and at times hold the residents at gunpoint. The tension escalates when the soldiers fire a stun grenade into a crawl space after hearing a noise and then ask the family patriarch to go into the suspected hideout.
Eventually the elderly man emerges with his back to the soldiers then, slowly turning around, hands them a rabbit.
“We stop the film the moment the surprise comes out,” said U.S. documentary director James Adolphus, 36. “It’s about creating dialogue after the curtain comes up.”
He and others involved in the film spoke after leaving the camp.
Israel continues to carry out arrest raids in West Bank towns and camps – areas nominally under Palestinian self-rule. The raids are a key source of resentment among Palestinians, who seek all of the West Bank – occupied by Israel since the 1967 war – as part of their own independent state.
Durgham Sahli, a community leader in Al-Ein camp, said he welcomed the crew at the request of Palestinian security officials. Though initially unaware of the presence of the ex-soldiers, he said he had no objections “as long as the movie portrays our reality.”
Adolphus explained that the film focuses in part on changes in the soldiers’ perceptions. The title’s “warren,” or labyrinth of rabbit tunnels, he said, stands for the seemingly intractable conflict that generates fear on both sides.
“The soldiers go deeper and deeper into the maze of the camp,” he said. “What do we find at the end of rabbit tunnels? Rabbits.”
The director said he hoped to show the short on the international film festival circuit to raise money for a full-length feature telling the story of Israeli soldiers and Palestinians in Nablus in 2002 – a time when Israel reoccupied the West Bank.
Adolphus, who spent several months teaching in Nablus a decade ago, said that he paid for the $65,000 film with personal funds and grant money.
During the filming that wrapped this week, lines between reality and fiction often blurred.
A camp resident whose house is raided in the film said Israeli soldiers have repeatedly broken down his front door over the years while chasing Palestinian stone-throwers.
“The idea is great because it represents the experience of many Palestinians,” said the man, who identified himself as Moussa – saying he feared some residents would object to his hosting former Israeli soldiers.
Elhanan – who speaks fluent Arabic and participated in several Palestinian films as well as teaching theater to at-risk children in Israel – said he often felt uneasy while portraying an Israeli officer.
In September 1997, Elhanan had just begun his compulsory three-year army service when his 14-year-old sister, Smadar, and four others were killed in a triple suicide bombing in Jerusalem. The assailants came from the Nablus area.
Elhanan belongs to a family of peace activists, and his mother blamed Israel’s harsh policies against Palestinians for her daughter’s death. Elhanan became a conscientious objector after his compulsory service, refusing to report for annual reserve duty.
During last summer’s first round of filming, he said he was worried people would find out he was Israeli, “without me having the opportunity to explain myself, what kind of Israeli I am.” This time, the atmosphere was more relaxed.
While Elhanan never served in the occupied territories, the second ex-conscript, acting student Daniel Gamlieli, knew the Nablus area, including Al-Ein, from his army days.
Gamlieli, 29, said he participated in the project, in part, because he wanted to make a case for artistic freedom.
In a phone interview, Gamlieli said his unit never acted as violently toward Palestinians as he was asked to do in the film, but added that “I know there are also other stories.”
He said he entered the camp with some trepidation, thinking of cases in which Palestinian crowds have attacked Israeli soldiers who had taken a wrong turn. But ultimately, the residents respected his work.
“I didn’t come as part of an army,” Gamlieli said. “I came as an individual. I was more vulnerable and I knew this.”