The Malta Independent 19 September 2019, Thursday

HBO drama looks at killings of teens that ignited Gaza war

Associated Press Thursday, 22 August 2019, 11:18 Last update: about 27 days ago

HBO's new docudrama series about the killings of four Israeli and Palestinian teenagers, violence which set off a cascade of events leading to the 2014 Gaza war, is set to air next week and is likely to reopen wounds on both sides of the conflict.

"Our Boys," co-created by Palestinian and Israeli filmmakers, presents a dramatized rendition of the chaotic events of that June following the abduction of three Israeli teens in the West Bank. The series, coproduced by HBO and Israel's Keshet TV, and premiering Aug. 12, looks at the hatred and violence unleashed during one of the decades-old conflict's most frenzied periods.

In June 2014, Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel, and Eyal Yifrah, three Israeli teenagers aged 16 and 19, were abducted and killed by Palestinian militants outside a West Bank settlement. An extensive Israeli military search eventually located their remains over two weeks later. After the discovery, three Israelis kidnapped Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian from east Jerusalem, and burned him alive in the woods outside the city.

Israel launched a sweeping crackdown in the West Bank after the three teenagers went missing, and the Islamic militant group Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza in response to the arrests of hundreds of its members. In response, Israel launched a full-scale air and ground invasion of the coastal territory. The 51-day war killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, over half of them civilians, according to U.N. tallies. At least 73 people were killed on the Israeli side, 67 of them soldiers.

The series was co-created by Joseph Cedar — twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for "Beaufort" in 2007 and "Footnote" in 2011; Hagai Levi, whose Showtime series "The Affair" won a Golden Globe for best television drama in 2014; and Tawfik Abu-Wael, a Palestinian citizen of Israel whose 2004 movie "Thirst" won a critics award at the Cannes film festival.

"Our Boys" will join the growing ranks of Israeli action dramas appearing on American television, following the success of Netflix's "Fauda" (Chaos), which is set to return for a third season, and "The Red Sea Diving Resort," about a Mossad operation in Sudan that brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the 1980s.

Cedar said he and his colleagues approached the story with a "journalistic sensibility" when pre-production began in 2015. "We're trying to bring to the screen something that is as close as possible to the real events, or at least as we understand them."

A cease-fire on Aug. 26, 2014, halted hostilities between Israel and Hamas, but the years since have seen sporadic renewals of violence that threaten to drag the two sides back into full-blown war. Israel maintains a blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and the Islamic militant group still holds two civilian captives and the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the war.

The show's creators acknowledge that any attempt to convey the suffering on both sides may be rejected at a time when lines have been hardened by decades of violence. Hamas and other militants have killed hundreds of Israelis in attacks targeting civilians over the years. The Palestinians and human rights groups say Israel often responds with excessive force and that it frequently fails to act when Israelis attack Palestinians.

"Let's be honest, we're going to be attacked from right, from left, from Arabs, from Jews," said Levi. "It's going to be hard for everyone."

"It's not the kind of show that is going to satisfy either the Israelis or the Palestinians," said Abu-Wael. But he said he hoped that it would "touch people and maybe change minds of people, at least a few of them."

It's the first time HBO will run an original series in Hebrew or Arabic. The series, in Hebrew and Arabic with English subtitles, weaves archival news footage together with scenes filmed around Jerusalem to create a haunting reenactment of events.

The series begins after the three Israeli teenagers have gone missing. Jews gather for prayers at the Western Wall as the protagonist, an agent in Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, is working to thwart possible retaliation by Israeli religious extremists. The 10-part program is seen from the perspective of the Abu Khdeir family, the Shin Bet agent and Abu Khdeir's killers.

Yosef Haim Ben David and two underage accomplices were convicted in 2016 of abducting Abu Khdeir and burning him to death. Last year Israel's Supreme Court rejected appeals by the three and upheld Ben David's life sentence plus 20 years in prison. The accomplices, who were both minors at the time of the killing, also received prison sentences, one for life and the other for 21 years.

The three said they were taking revenge for the abduction and killing of Fraenkel, Yifrah and Shaer weeks earlier by Palestinians linked to Hamas.

A Palestinian man, Hussam Qawasmeh, was convicted of masterminding the abduction and killing of the Israeli teens and sentenced to life in prison by an Israeli court in January 2015. The two Palestinians Israel accused of killing the teenagers were shot dead in a firefight with Israeli forces in September 2014.

The show's creators said the families of the Israeli and Palestinian teens were consulted in the initial stages of the project but have not yet seen the series.

Levi said the Israeli families "knew what we're doing, they were not happy with that," and "they preferred that we would tell, perhaps, a different story."

The families may have objected to the decision to focus on the Abu Khdeir killing. Rachelle Fraenkel, the mother of one of the slain Israeli teens, had no immediate comment.

"I believe they would prefer we'll focus more on their sons' story, and on the unification of the people of Israel around them at that time," Levi said.  "There's, of course, nothing more understandable and legitimate than this."

Levi said the Israeli families' pain and reactions were significant for him because his own family had to grieve the death of his younger brother, who was killed in the Lebanon War.

Hussein Abu Khdeir, father of the slain Palestinian teen, said he spoke with the film producers a few years ago and "gave them all the details I have about the kidnapping and the killing and the court proceedings."

"I haven't seen the film or its script," Abu Khdeir said. "It is too soon to judge it before seeing it, but I hope it will reflect what really happened with my son."

Levi, the series' creator, said that releasing "Our Boys" now, when painful memories are still fresh, presented an opportunity for soul searching.

"If we want to say something about the Israeli reality, or if you want to say something about hate at all, isn't it the right time to say it now and not 20 years from now?"

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