Broken – A Palestinian Journey Through International Law

This is a documentary about the Israeli “Separation Wall”, commissioned after the start of the second Intifada, The wall was ostensibly built to protect Israel from terrorist attacks. Yet it was built almost entirely on Palestinian territory, and used to enclave the inhabitants of the West Bank and to facilitate land grab and the building of settlements.

By the time that Broken was released, in 2018, the wall was four times as long and twice as high as the Berlin wall. In 2004, it was declared illegal by the International Court of Justice. The film interviews a series of legal experts to ask why the wall has been allowed to remain. They are almost unanimous that a great injustice has been done, yet nothing has changed.

This is a very difficult review for me to write. Broken is a damning indictment of Israeli intransigence, US intervention and the ineffectuality of international law. It convincingly explains how the building and sustaining of the wall has been more to do with occupation and realpolitik than safety. Tonight’s showing was organised by friends of mine who are active in Palästina Spricht and the Jewish Voice for Peace, two organisations which I respect wholeheartedly. Yet I found the film deeply problematic.

Let’s start with how the scene is set – as the euphoria of the Oslo Peace Settlement is dashed by the bombings of the second Intifada. Now this is a point of view, which has been sustained by the media coverage of the Middle East, but it’s one that has only a passing relationship to the facts on the ground. The regrettable and murderous bombing campaign did not destroy Oslo, it emerged because the beleaguered Palestinians were never offered the chance of any peaceful gains.

It is simply not true, as the film intimates, that Oslo offered anything substantial to the Palestinians. This was noted at the time by Edward Said, the US-Palestinian intellectual and political leader, who was by no means on the radical wing of the movement. After Oslo, Said broke with PLO leader Yassir Arafat because of the latter’s futile belief that the Settlement offered any more than empty words.

Having afforded credibility to the excuse used for building the wall, director Mohammed Alatar’s objections are almost entirely legalistic. Seven of the nine talking heads are judges or former judges, of whom only one is Palestinian. Of the remaining two interviewees, one is a leading Israeli soldier and West Bank settler, and one is a former Palestinian diplomat.

You may have noticed that of the 9 people interviewed, only 2 are Palestinian, and neither is exactly from the “street”. The film ends with a number of old white men telling the Palestinians not to be emotional or violent, because international law may come good in the end. Eventually. Whether it wants it or not, the message conveyed by the film to suffering Palestinians is that they shouldn’t fight against poverty and occupation because some ex-judges are very worried.

And yet the whole tenor of the film is that international law has just not worked. Or rather it has worked – and has served vested interests from the get go. As a character study of the self-delusion of legal experts who can’t understand why their beloved system keeps failing, the film is very instructive. But I’m pretty sure that it’s trying to do something else.

At a Q&A after the film, director Altar said that he’s just documenting how things are and is not trying to change anything. I don’t really believe him. His documentation comes from a passionate disgust at injustice, and yet I think that he has chosen the wrong agency for change. Having given up on the helpless Palestinians, he is hoping for the help of a kindly lawyer.

I know, you shouldn’t criticise a film for what’s not there, and yet the focus on lawyers (and a right wing soldier) comes because Altar has lost hope in anyone else. But you can’t change a rotten system from the inside. Broken is now largely being shown at a series of law schools, which could change a couple of opinions but will do nothing to shift the balance of power.

It was said a couple of times this evening that this film needs to be seen widely and discussed. And it does, but it should not be discussed alone. Try also watching films like Paradise Now and Junction 48. Sure these are dramas, not documentaries, but they show that Palestinians are also out there, leading their own flawed lives. And while we should build whatever solidarity we can, we’re not going to achieve liberation without them, however many fancy law degrees we have.

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