A mere 10-minute drive from Tel Aviv, the dilapidated city of Lod – or Lydda as the Palestinians call it – has become a hub for Bedouin drug lords and extremist Jewish settlers.
Seventy-five thousand Jews, Muslims and Christians live side-by-side in this poverty-stricken city, which is beset by racism, bigotry, and violence.
Corruption, allied with poor management and jingoistic politics had driven Lod deep into the abyss until finally, the Israeli government was forced to step in and appoint Meir Nitzan as mayor, hoping that he would be able to save the city.
Uri Rosenwaks and Eyal Blachson’s new film Town on the Wire, which is premiering at the upcoming Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, portrays Nitzan’s attempt and ultimate failure to reinvigorate the run-down city.
Lod is, of course, an ancient city first mentioned in the Bible and home to the famous fourth-century Church of Saint George. Yet, it is the city’s recent history that actually serves as the necessary background for understanding the film.
During the first days of July 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion set in motion Operation Larlar, designed to conquer Lydda, Ramle, Latrun, and Ramallah. As Ari Shavit describes in his best-selling book, My Promised Land, Israeli troops stormed Lydda on July 11, and the following day, they massacred 250 Palestinians.
Ben-Gurion’s reaction was nonetheless uncompromising, demanding that Yitzhak Rabin, who was the operations officer at the time, issue a written order to the troops. Rabin, who later became prime minister and signatory of the Oslo agreements, published the order: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.”
Approximately 35,000 Palestinians were forced to leave Lydda, marching in a long column towards the West Bank. Zionism, as Ari Shavit writes, “had obliterated the city of Lydda”.
In an irony of history, Lod never became a purely Jewish city. The vast majority of its Palestinian residents who currently comprise 30 percent of the city’s population are not, however, Lydda’s original inhabitants, but rather, internal refugees.
These include Palestinians from cities like Jaffa and Bedouin from the south who the Israeli government forcefully relocated to the city. These two groups live among Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa, and as the film shows, the relationships among them are extremely fraught.
The film-makers delve deep into the bowels of this torn city, exposing the dirty hands of all those who meddle in local politics.
Depicting, for example, the horrors of blood feuds among Bedouin families, the film reveals that they are not resolved by the police or the Israeli justice system, but rather by traditional Bedouin courts that continue to empower patriarchal tribal norms.
The directors also follow Jewish fundamentalists, who, after expropriating Palestinian land in the West Bank, are now entering “mixed” Israeli cities to dispossess their Palestinian inhabitants.
They expose the rabid racism in a public daycare centre, showing how it caters only to Jews even though it is located in a Palestinian neighbourhood. The viewer thus gradually comes to understand that the local feuds and daycare centres are intimately tied into larger national and religious divisions.
Enter Nitzan, a 79-year-old religious Jew and Holocaust survivor. He is a humanistic Zionist, a good man with honourable intentions.
He believes in civil rights, but also in a Jewish state. He believes the Palestinians should have a voice, but that it should never be hegemonic. He abhors corruption and racism, but struggles against its manifestations rather than its source. He is, as the film underscores, a representative of the old Zionist elite, the very people who displaced Palestinians and then tried to create a liberal Jewish state.
Nitzan is indeed a captivating figure, and watching him operate in what appears to be impossible circumstances, one begins to appreciate the seductive elements in liberal Zionism.
Although the film offers a profoundly critical perspective, even the directors at times seem to fall under Nitzan’s spell and allow him to conjure up a nostalgic longing for a better past.
This nostalgia is produced in several scenes, such as the one in which he invites the Jewish fundamentalists to a meeting and instructs them to share the public daycare centre with their Palestinian neighbours.
But Rosenwaks and Blachson also show that Nitzan does nothing when the same fundamentalists take over a run-down building in the heart of a Palestinian neighbourhood. His Zionist world-view, they reveal, is liberalism with a strong dash of dispossession.
But as the film Town on the Wire eloquently shows, Nitzan is also a dinosaur, a remnant of the past who was resurrected for two years only to be replaced by the new Zionist elite: the illiberal religious groups.
Not unlike other forces that have been gaining ground in the Middle East, the film shows how this new elite reduces the nationalist struggle between Israelis and Palestinians to a tribal religious struggle informed by a shameless racist world-view.
Lacking any interest in creating a pluralistic society, they use state institutions to trammel the Palestinians in broad daylight.
Thus, in order to understand the forces driving the “new Intifada”, how religious messages are taking over all claims to national self-determination, and why the conflict is not only being fought by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but by their relatives inside Israel, Town on the Wire is definitely a good place to begin.
Neve Gordon is the author of Israel’s Occupation, as well as The Human Right to Dominate (co-authored with Nicola Perugini).