What have I been doing binging on watching 24 episodes of the Israeli hit Fauda from its first two seasons? A third season is scheduled to come out in 2019. I had vowed to watch only those series with at most 6 (though one time it was 8) episodes. I did not like getting hooked. I have clearly broken my promise to myself. (When I read about the show online, I learned that I am not the only one.)

One explanation I offer is that I initially thought that it was an 8-episode series in one season because, unless you scrolled down, only the titles of 8 episodes appeared on the TV screen. I soon learned otherwise – there were 12 episodes. And there were two seasons. But I kept watching.

In March of this year, this original Israeli production of this action thriller, now on Netflix, swept 11 Israeli awards. For 2016, the show, which initially debuted in 2015, won six prizes at the Israeli Academy Awards; the excellent acting, script, plot and settings partially explain why I kept watching. The New York Times declared the show the best international series in 2017 and 2018.

I was certainly not entranced because of the dubbing of the Hebrew into English. Though not badly done, I generally find dubbing too annoying. This happened when I watched Berlin Babylon. I simply quit after 3 episodes. But most (evidently 70%) of the conversation of Fauda is in Arabic with English subtitles; that is one relief. Further, I learned that I could watch in the original Hebrew plus subtitles if I followed the following procedure:

  • You should get to the Fauda show on Netflix and press the icon
  • You will see at the bottom left “Audio and subtitles”
  • Scroll down and press enter:
  • Check English on the subtitle and scroll down and check Hebrew on the Audio.

These very simple instructions were too difficult for me and I simply watched the few remaining shows in the dubbed format. That alone is an indication of how compelling I found the series.

Another explanation for my compulsion in watching a terrorist and counter-terrorist thriller was because of its psychological and political realism. That is because Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, who wrote the script, both served in the elite IDF’s Duvdevan Counter-Terrorism Unit. (In Hebrew, duvdevan means cherry and the unit is considered the crème de la crème.) While all special units of the IDF of necessity are intelligence gathering operations, unlike the Israeli Seals (S-13), the Air Force 669 unit and the Yamam police unit, which are dedicated to hostage rescue, Duvdevan focuses on infiltration, and intense and aggressive actions. Unlike the Yamas undercover police unit, Dudevan does not concentrate on ambushes.

Formed in 1987 to handle the first Palestinian Intifada in which 160 Israelis were killed, Duvdevan was an undercover unit made up of soldiers who spoke fluent Arabic, had mastered Arab and Muslim practices and habits, and was capable of rapid, efficient and effective counter-terrorist interventions and undercover operations against Palestinian militants and terrorists who worked from bases in the crowded urban centres of Nablus, Jenin and Ramallah, Khan Junis, Jabalia and Hebron. Most of the episodes were shot in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasim. In the series, the unit is simply called the Mistaravim or undercover unit engaged in hit-and-run operations on a daily basis, though the first 12 episodes were actually shot during an actual war – Operation Protective Edge. However, these special forces form a counter-terrorism rather than combat unit ready for deployment in war.

The work the unit is engaged in makes for great drama that is both exciting and very dangerous, but the series also concentrates on the personal and psychological costs to the members of the unit. In the episodes, the members of the unit are not just action figures; they have troubled lives, much of that trouble having to do with the work they do.

But the realism of the show comes even more powerfully from the way that the Palestinian security forces, the Hamas units and the ISIS terrorists are portrayed. They too have rich personal lives and are not just stick figures. The series humanizes the combatants on both sides, even though both sides are mostly engaged in inhumane practices. The realism is also enhanced by the range of weapons and their accurate use – Glock pistols, micro-Uzis (compact and concealable), SIG-Sauer 228 9mm pistols and M16s for backup. There is the usual RBT (Reality-Based-Training) involving boxing and martial arts and getting beaten up by your own unit commanders and fellow members to toughen up a member of the unit. Lior Raz also plays Doron, the main character in the series.

In real life, in January 2008, the unit assassinated a major Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank; the storyline borrows from real life events in creating the fictional narrative, sometimes suggested by the dedications. I believe the role of Taufiq Hammed (Hisham Sulliman) at the beginning of the series, where Taufiq is called Abu Ahmad and nicknamed “the panther,” was based partially on the life and death of a real terrorist.

If Abu Ahmad was a thorough professional terrorist, two Palestinians are portrayed as villains. Walid Al Abed (Shadi Mar’l), who begins as a twenty-year-old toady to Abu Ahmad, emerges as a combination of childish infantilism and ruthless killer. Whatever his pathological mixture of jealousy, suspicion and devotion to murder, and whatever his faults before he is killed, he cannot be compared to the psychopathic very handsome and very urbane Nidal “El Makdessi” (played brilliantly by Firas Nassar), an ISIS terrorist fanatic.

A source of the power of the film is that the Palestinian side has a much wider range of characters, from Bedouin friends of the Jews to co-operative Palestinian security commanders to various stripes of terrorist. But the variety of Palestinian women are almost more intriguing than the men, especially Dr. Shirin El Abed (eeed them yesterday. Today, I am tempted. The main problem is not simply tiredness, but I have difficulty rai Walid’s cousin and eventual wife, but also Doron’s mistress. It is usually the women who infuse both sides with the bounty of humanity, even the one woman in the undercover unit, Nurit (Rona-Lee Shim’on). Though capable of killing, she breaks into tears when she has to watch captives being tortured.

The pattern of each episode is also unusual since each one generally starts with a striking and very violent incident. Instead of being the violent culmination of a series of actions, the opening serves as the base from which the psychological dimensions of the conflict are exposed. This is not a series about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but about the internal, interpersonal and group tensions that arise in such conflicts. For the war between the Israelis and the Palestinians is matched within each side by rivalries, and, on the Palestinian side, also by ideology that simply makes the Israeli-Palestinian struggle only a small part of the drama.

Fauda translates as “chaos”, but the story is not about chaos in any ordinary meaning of the term since, on both sides, there is a very high degree of organization, discipline and order. The plot may become confusing at times because of the large cast of characters, but the drama itself is very focused, the message always given to the unit when they head out for an assignment. “Keep focused.” I would have preferred the title, “Tit-For-Tat,” or even “Tit Tit for Tat,” for the running motif is blood for blood, brother shot, brother-in-law killed, father shot, the other father killed. It may seem endless, but there is a positive note that runs through the series.

And this is the ultimate reality. This week alone, the IDF retaliated in Gaza against terrorist rocket fire and the Israeli Air Force pummeled nine Hamas targets. By mid-week, Israel’s Shin Bet Security Agency thwarted a mass bombing of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv targets by capturing the conspirators. The series is reality.

In the 1960s, I first met Anatol Rapoport through his wife Gwen at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbour. Subsequently, in 1970 his family moved to the Wychwood Park neighbourhood in Toronto to ensure his children would not have to serve in the Vietnam War. My youngest daughter, and Gwen and Anatol’s son, Tony, became romantically involved as teenagers. Anatol, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto (as well as a brilliant pianist), was a mathematician who invented, in collaboration with Ken Boulding and Ludwig von Bertalanffy, general systems theory, known in its popular form as game theory. The simple Tit-For-Tat game provided enormous insight then into the Soviet-American rivalry at the time and forms the foundation of the Fauda series.

Fauda is a case study of Rapoport’s insights into fights, violence, war and peace. Anatol’s entry into the 1980s computer competition on Tit-For-Tat had only four lines of code. The program begins with cooperation between opponents, similar to the cooperation between Captain Gabi Ayub (Itzik Cohen) of the IDF and Abu Maher (Qader Harini) head of the Palestinian Authority’s Security Service. Tit-For-Tat is not just about revenge, about blood for blood. It is also about how positive reciprocal behaviour begets positive behaviour from the other side. But when one side defects from that cooperation, mayhem breaks out. Players on each side are rewarded for cooperation whether with the other side or with other members of one’s own team. Players when they shift into selfishness are sanctioned by punishment from the other side or rivals within and among one’s own side.

That is the base line real power of the series. In all its aspects, it explores the various dimensions of Tit-For-Tat game theory. When behaviour becomes self-centred, as it does even for Doron, the results can be catastrophic, perhaps nowhere more than when Doron turns against his Palestinian mistress when his own father is killed by terrorists. Blood feuds are perhaps the most basic part of the negative side of game theory, even though game theory also provides insights into the establishment of cooperation. And contrary to many who have watched the series, I do not believe the message is that the conflict is intractable. (My highly respected colleague Derek Penslar holds such a view, substantiated because Fauda shows that Israel has become part of the Middle East.)

One side implication was Rapoport’s work on social network analysis. The speedy flow of information through social networks is crucial to effective cooperative action allowing both the diffusion of innovation as well as the epidemic of contamination to flow through social organizations and work either creatively or destructively. Just as the Vietnam War was a war that neither side could win, though North Vietnam emerged initially as the ostensible victor, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one that neither side can ultimately win even though Israel is clearly the victor at this time.

To remain victorious Israel will have to reward the Palestinian Authority for its cooperation while, at the same time, punishing those who undermine that potential through violence. To the extent it fails to do so, to that extent will divisions and bad blood be created among the members of its own side, let alone between Israel and the Palestinians. The Tit-For-Tat format, however depressing in most instances, is also uplifting in that there is both a demonstration of cooperation as well as conflict between the two sides and among the members of each side.


With the help of Alex Zisman


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