It set off a shock wave, this forgiveness. Near the beginning of My Terrorist, filmmaker Yulie Cohen Gerstel appears on Israeli television to talk about her decision to help facilitate a prison release for the terrorist who nearly killed her in 1978. The host of Politica, Israel’s most popular political talk show, seems incredulous. “Explain to me why you don’t scare yourself,” he demands. Across from Gerstel sits a woman, Yaffa El-Harar, whose daughter died in a car bombing several years ago. Radiating fury and pain, El-Harar declares that no one should even be talking to terrorists, much less forgiving them: “They should be eliminated without hesitation, without mercy.”
My Terrorist opens this week at Film Forum along with Ilan Ziv’s Human Weapon, a new documentary on the history of suicide bombing, or what Ziv calls the privatization of political violence. (It’s no longer the exclusive domain of nations.) Here is plenty of terrible evidence about the path of no hesitation, no mercy—ground the terrorists own. As Robert J. Lifton says in Human Weapon: “The apocalyptic violence and the suicide bombing dimension create an aura of threat, death transcendence . . . and it is tempting to plunge into that in the effort to destroy it or combat it, in a way that resembles it. That’s the real danger.”
Gerstel tells her antagonists on Politica that she simply wants to find another way. What happens in My Terrorist might be called the privatization of reconciliation (since that process no longer seems to interest certain governments). On a recent visit to New York, she said that the film had not been well received in Israel, where it was shown on cable TV. Critics called it “boring” and “shallow.” In fact, it’s a unique work of conscience, and since the outbreak of the second intifada, a subversive one.
In August 1978, Gerstel was part of an El Al crew attacked as they arrived at a central London hotel. She’d been immediately suspicious of the two Arab men near the door and had just pointed them out when Fahad Mihyi opened fire with a machine gun. The other man pulled the pin on a grenade as a panic-stricken stewardess ran straight into him; she and he died instantly. Another stewardess standing right next to Gerstel fell in the lobby with a bullet in her brain. Hit in the arm by shrapnel, Gerstel later testified at Mihyi’s trial. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, he got four concurrent life sentences.
Gerstel grew up in the Tel Aviv neighborhood that was home to Ariel Sharon and Moshe Dayan, attracted to the military. By the time of the terrorist attack in London, she had already served her mandatory two and a half years in the air force and was a college student, working summers as a stewardess. But after graduating, she rejoined the air force as a captain.
Her disillusionment began with the massacre at the Sabra-Shatila refugee camp in 1982. “Me being a victim maybe delayed my involvement in the Palestinian cause,” she speculates. She remembers a demonstration she attended with her young daughter to demand withdrawal from Lebanon, and her sensitivity to the violence as other Israelis threw things and called them traitors. “I remember deciding not to go out anymore. I think I was traumatized, but one day I grew up. It’s a process.”
Gerstel began to make films in 1993, all documentaries, none particularly political—one on the Bedouins, another on a Kurdish village in Israel. Then, in 1999, she did a short film on Imad F. Sabi, who’d been deported from Israel as a suspected recruiter for the PFLP. “It was him that threw me back to my trauma, because I got to like him very much.” She took an evening course in Palestinian history, and began to meet people in Gaza and the West Bank. “One day I was sitting in Nablus with my Palestinian friends, in a café, and I was thinking—this Fahad could be sitting here.” She decided to look for him. After finding him in an English prison, she wrote a letter asking about his background, his motives: “I’ve been trying to figure out what happened to you personally and to Palestinians in general that turned us to be enemies.” His reply was an apology. Eventually, he would ask for her help in leaving jail. And she would ask him for permission to film. He refused. So My Terrorist became her journey, “and he made me do this journey by not cooperating. Because I didn’t think about filming myself at all. It was supposed to be about him.”
Along the way, Gerstel had questions and doubts and discouragements. After September 11, she nearly decided to break things off with him. Now, she thinks he may be out of jail, but “on purpose,” she doesn’t know. She spent all of one hour with him in prison, and was as certain then that he’d changed as she was certain in 1978 that he was dangerous.
Only the fanatics have no questions and discouragements, one thing that becomes clear in Ziv’s Human Weapon. A native of Tel Aviv who now lives in Brooklyn, Ziv has been making documentaries for 20 years, including several on the Middle East conflict, and he’s assembled some amazing material here.
He found three former Basiji living in exile in Germany, for example. The Basiji were Iranian boys as young as 11 or 12 recruited into suicide units during the Iran-Iraq war. Tens of thousands of them died walking as human waves straight into the line of fire or clearing minefields with their bodies. Ziv considers them the prototype of the new “human weapon” bred in a culture of martyrdom. The wife of a Hezbollah suicide bomber remembers her concern that her husband was taking his time about deciding to die. She hadn’t expected the marriage to last for five years. In the background, their son watches a videotape of Dad’s “mission,” the explosion as he blows himself up inside an Israeli army convoy.
Ziv wants to show that it isn’t just a Middle East phenomenon, but “a powerful weapon of the poor” (among the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, for example) or the desperate (kamikaze pilots). Only in the poorest, most desperate corners of the Middle East, however, does it seem to be so everyday. Ziv acquired a Hamas tape, for example, of a girls’ choir in the West Bank singing the praises of jihad.
“The danger in suicide bombing is not the amount of people it kills,” says Ziv. “It’s the psychological waves it spreads around, and I think Israel is quite a horrible laboratory for that.”
Gerstel finds herself feeling very pessimistic. Her film includes some footage from a play about truth and reconciliation staged outdoors in Tel Aviv by the Arab-Hebrew Theater. “It started in October 2000, but couldn’t go on running because the objections were so strong,” says Gerstel. Indeed, a fight broke out the day she filmed it. “This is how I realized that we are so far away from reconciliation. As one Palestinian, one of the actors, told me, ‘We are not at the truth stage yet. How can we reconcile?’ ”
J. Hoberman’s review of My Terrorist and Human Weapon