Last year, on the programme Issues of Faith (SABC 2) I watched the documentary film, The Letter, which showed ordinary Palestinians and Israeli’s getting together to understand the circumstances under which they live and trying to find ways to reconcile. Ali Abu Awwab, a young Palestinian, whose brother was killed by Israeli soldiers, and Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman, whose son was killed by a Palestinian sniper are leaders of this reconciliation movement.   Robi writes a letter to the sniper and Ali Abu takes it to the family whose reaction is hostile.

This morning, 16 October 2011, I watched the second part of the story, entitled Al Tariq – The Way. This time, the focus was on Ali Abu Awwab and it showed the toll that his involvement in the reconciliation process takes on his life. Having lost his brother in the conflict, Ali had made up his mind that violence was not the answer to the situation. Real attempts to communicate and understand were needed. Ali is shown confronting Israeli soldiers and trying to make them understand that he and the people that he is with are not armed. He wants them to understand that there is a difference between resistance and violence. But he is appealing to soldiers.

In the film, the wall that separates the Israeli settlers from the Palestinians and the checkpoints that Palestinians have to pass through, present visible symbols of the prison-like conditions of Palestinian life.

Ali visits his wife and children whom he does not see every day. He is afraid that he is becoming a stranger to his children and he is aware that his wife is frustrated and wants to leave him. He is shown to be a loving father but one caught in a dilemma. As a child, he had resented his mother’s absence from the home. She was a political activist and he had felt neglected. Now he sees the same pattern evolving in his family and it hurts him. But he does not have a choice. He could give up his activism and stay with his family and be a hero in the home, but he feels committed to the cause of reconciliation. For him, it is the only solution that will bring back normality to his life and to the lives of the Palestinian people. In his mind, he has become the symbol of non-violent resistance and is needed by his people to inspire them to work for peace and reconciliation.

He understands what his family cannot. The situation is such that he cannot lead a normal life. Life in Palestine under occupation cannot be normal. To stay with his family and ignore the political situation means admitting defeat and accepting that Palestinians can never be free.

So he continues his work with Robi, organising meetings between Palestinians and Israelis so they can talk and learn to respect one another.

Ali goes to visit the family of the sniper who killed Robi’s son and this time the family accepts him and is not hostile. The father gives him a letter from the son, who is in an Israeli prison. It is a long letter in which the son explains how he became a member of a group that planned violent attacks on Israeli’s. As a child, he had grown up in a situation in which Palestinians were constantly being harassed and killed and when he witnessed his uncle being brutally gunned down, he made up his mind to take revenge. Ali identifies with the young man and his state of mind. Ali also lost a family member in similar circumstances but, where the young man had turned to violence, Ali had decided that violence solved nothing. The young man’s letter makes Ali happy: it indicates a shift in the sniper’s attitude – he feels remorse and has written to explain his actions.

Ali telephones Robi to tell her about the letter and he is surprised at her reaction. She seems angry that she had not been the recipient of the letter and seems not to want anything more to do with the matter.

Ali goes home to find that his wife and the children have moved in with her sister. As he plays with his children and hugs and embraces them, it is clear that he is suffering greatly because he cannot be with them all the time. He is being made aware very forcefully of the sacrifices that are being required of him. And he is upset by Robi’s attitude; by her inability to distinguish between attacks aimed at the oppression of the State and personal attacks on individuals.

We are not given an insight into Robi’s dissatisfaction with Ali’s report on the sniper’s letter. We can only guess that perhaps she was disappointed with Ali’s sympathy for the sniper, the man who had killed her buoyant, peace loving son who had been conscripted into the Israeli army.

In both films The Letter and Al Tariq we see the interplay of the personal with the legal and the confusion to which it leads. Human beings in a war situation or a situation of oppression become divided in their loyalties. The State demands one set of norms but family and personal values demand another.

We see it in Robi’s son. He does not believe in violence but he joins the Israeli army because he feels he has no choice.  His obligation to the State contradicts his personal beliefs.

We see it in Robi who accepts her son’s conscription despite her abhorrence of violence. On a personal level she becomes involved in reconciliation and takes the initiative to reach out to the sniper. But she is not prepared for his response; perhaps she expected an apology as one person to another. But the sniper’s explanation of how he was forced to take up arms, (in the way that David was forced to take up arms, both men thus becoming instruments of the political situation), takes his action out of the personal and becomes unacceptable to Robi who thinks only in terms of the personal. She does not realize that in accepting her son’s conscription, she allied herself with the State.

This confusion, between personal needs and the demands of the State, is depicted in many scenes in the film:

When Ali confronts Israeli soldiers and tries to explain the difference between resistance and violence, he is speaking from a personal point of view to men who represent the State. Passive resistance, which is what Ali is about, is an individual choice. When one becomes a soldier one gives up personal choice; one follows orders.

Ali neglects his family. He is sad at having to give up wife and family but his loyalty is to a wider cause.

When Robi’s son joined the army, he gave up personal beliefs in order to serve the State.

When the sniper shot David, he regarded David as a symbol of the State. The sniper had turned himself into an instrument of his people. His revenge was aimed at the Israeli State.

As the films present the role of the individual in conflict with the role of the patriot, they force us to question what patriotism means. When we allow ourselves to be conscripted even though we are pacifists, are we being patriotic or are we victims of coercion?   Is loyalty to State actions to which we are opposed, patriotism? If we and the State are one, there is no problem. But when a State arrogates to itself rights to dominate and control others on our behalf, and against our will, does the State still represent us? Do not actions of a State that the people do not condone, indicate a separation between the governed and the government? When a government no longer represents the people, does it deserve our loyalty?

Ali Abu will not take up arms against Israelis, even though he sees around him people driven to violence out of desperation. He does not accept what seems to be the general consensus: fight violence with violence. Does that make him unpatriotic to the Palestine cause? But he is involved in a personal quest for reconciliation precisely because he is loyal to his people. However, his loyalty encompasses a wider loyalty than patriotism; he wishes to establish a brother/sisterhood that cannot be confined by walls. His aspirations go far beyond the limitations of patriotism.

At the end of the film, however, he begins to question his relevance. Personal attempts to solve problems cannot withstand the power of a State bent on domination. A State, which represents a collective, can only be confronted by another such collective.  

Both Ali and Robi seem to be veering towards a limited loyalty, towards patriotisms in which neither believes. A sad ending to what looked to be so promising at the beginning.