Part I Our Boys: Background – A Review

Our Boys is a ten-part Israeli television series co-produced by HBO and the Israeli network, Keshet. There are almost no spoilers in Part I of my review. THIS IS A MUST SEE SHOW!

The series, made by Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu-Wael, is a docudrama rather than a documentary of the real events it reproduces. Part of the enormous controversy generated by the show was the selection of which events to document. Why the murder of one Arab boy and not the abduction and murder of the three Jewish boys? Why open with the granular footage of the three murdered Israeli boys and not the killing of protesting Arab teenagers in Gaza in 2014? Joseph Cedar justified his focus because the show was not about terrorism but about a hate crime. But the main Israeli investigator in his court testimony called the murder of the teenage Arab boy “terrorism” and the Victims of Acts of Terror Memorial in Jerusalem recognized the murder of the Arab teenager by Jewish right-wingers as an act of terrorism.

A time line:

  • May 2014: many Palestinians in Gaza killed protesting against Israel
  • 12 June 2014: three Israeli Jewish teenagers, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel were abducted and murdered;
  • in the search for the killers, “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” hundreds of Palestinians were arrested
  • 30 June 2014: the bodies of the three Jewish boys from the settlement of Alon Shvut were found in a field near Hebron
  • 1 July 2014: after the funeral, hundreds of right-wing Israelis rampaged through Jerusalem yelling, “Death to the Arabs” and were morally supported by important Jewish members of the Israeli Knesset; not mentioned in the series, Ayelet Shaked posted a quote from Israeli journalist, Ori Elitzur: “Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads.”
  • 2 July 2014: the day after the funeral of the three Jewish boys, a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was abducted from outside his father’s store in Shu’afat, East Jerusalem; his charred body was found at Givat Shaul in the Jerusalem Forest only a few hours after the crime had been committed
  • 6 July 2014: the crime was solved and three Israelis were arrested
  • The same day, seven Hamas militants were killed in a tunnel explosion in Khan Yunis as a result of an accidental explosion of their own munitions or an Israeli IDF airstrike. Hamas launched 40 rockets towards Israel.
  • 8 July 2014: the aftermath, the 50-day Gaza War
  • 23 September 2014: Hamas members Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa, the murderers of the three Jewish teenagers, were trapped and killed in a shootout.

Our Boys, part investigative crime thriller and part socio-psychological drama both of the Palestinian community and the Jewish Israeli community, is also a geographical lesson about the gritty streets of Ramallah, West Bank religious settlements, the roads connecting and dividing the communities, as well as the interiors of Israeli courts and offices. However, the most memorable geographic icon is the Jerusalem Light Rail that passes through a half mile of the Shu’fat area where Mohammed Abu Khdeir’s family had their electrical repair shop as well as through other parts of East Jerusalem. In the riots after the murder, the Jerusalem Light Rail was severely damaged.

The heavy breath of politics haunts each episode. But most of all, the show is a dramatization of a complex, multi-faceted lesson in ethics and could easily serve as case material for a university course on international ethics, terrorism and hate crimes.

Who are “Our Boys”? While writing this review, my top monitor has pictures of nine boys, five of them Jewish Israelis and four of them Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank. All are teenagers. I will introduce them according to the calendar as they appear on the world historical stage.

On 15 May 2014, during the Great Return March commemorating Nakba, the name Palestinians give to the disaster that befell them with the creation of the Israeli state and the exodus of 720,000 Arabs, three Palestinian teenagers, Nadeem (Nadim) Nawara (17), Mohammad Salameh (16) and Mohamed al-Azi (15) were shot within one hour while participating in that march.  I have not included the picture of Mohamed al-Azi because he recovered from his wounds. The other two did not.

Further, because Nawara’s parents had permitted an autopsy, the world learned that Nadeem had been killed by an M16 round to the chest. Israel claimed to be using only rubber bullets. Further, because there was film footage of the incident, an Israeli border police officer, Ben Deri, copped a plea bargain and was convicted of “serious negligence.” Prosecutors definitively demonstrated that both the police and soldiers had been ordered to use only rubber-coated pellets. The prosecutors could not supply evidence that Deri had deliberately used live ammunition in place of rubber bullets when he shot Nawara from a distance of less than 200 metres after Nawara had hurled a stone. Ben Deri had two guns, one used and loaded with rubber bullet and the other with live ammunition. He claimed that he had mistakenly reached for the wrong gun. The officer received a sentence of nine months in prison and ordered to pay the victim’s family US$14,000.  

In the case of sixteen-year-old Mohammad Salameh, the parents had not given permission to have an autopsy performed and no video was produced. No one was ever charged. Did this have anything to do with the fact that his namesake had been a convicted perpetrator of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing serving time in a Florence, Colorado prison and was regarded as a martyr by many Palestinians of the Hamas creed?

In any case, there were many other pictures I could have used, such as that of Mohammad Abu Thar, named after Mohammad Abu Thar al-Ghaffari who was a very early and very important supporter of the prophet Mohammed in the early days when the prophet only had a few disciples. The sixteen-year-old was also killed for participating in the demonstrations, but not during that hour on 15 May that I selected. There was no autopsy; there was also no video and no charges.

16-year-old Mahmoud Majed Gharabli also died by real bullets when an IDF sniper used live ammunition and not just rubber bullets to quell the demonstrations in May, but died only on 4 July 2014 during the effort to gather the evidence that led to the charges and conviction of the three Israelis. The sniper was not charged.

There were other teenaged Gazans killed in those demonstrations. On 14 May alone, 60 Palestinians participating in those demonstrations died the same day, among them many teenagers. By 30 May, of the 136 who died, seventeen of these “children” had been killed during the demonstrations. I have on my monitor pictures of only two.

Their deaths are not part of the story told in Our Boys. They are not among the boys to which the series refers. The first three murdered Jewish Israelites mentioned in the series opener were Eyal Yifrach (19), Naftali Fraenkel (16) and Gilad Shaar (16). The three teens had been hitching a ride at the Geva’ot Intersection just west of the Alon Shvut (“oak of return”) settlement, a kilometre just northeast of the Etzion Bloc in the Judean Hills directly south of Bethlehem in the West Bank. The boys were headed for Beit Shemesh, their initial target before dispersing to their homes.

Alon Shvut is considered part of Greater Etzion and the site is believed to be the location of the Battle of Beth Zecharia between the Maccabees and the Seleucid army following their defeat of the Seleucids in Jerusalem. The settlement was built on 920 dunams confiscated from the Palestinian village of Khirbet Zakariya. This is not irrelevant to the story.

After the Six Day War, Yigal Alon was a sponsor of the re-settlement of the location in 1970 since Etzion had been captured and destroyed by the Arabs in the 1948 war. Alon Shvut is the location of Yeshivat Har Etzion that offers a five-year program combining military studies and training alongside yeshiva study. Just as kibbutzim in the old days provided a disproportionate number of army officers, by 2014 this settlement was providing a disproportionate number of religious officers for the IDF. It is not the Har Not yeshiva depicted in Our Boys.

Amar Abu-isa Aysha and Marwan Qawasme, two Hamas “soldiers,” abducted the three young Israelis. The hypothesis was that the kidnappers intended initially to offer their captives as an exchange in return for freeing Palestinian prisoners. However, they had only expected to give one or two of the boys a ride in their relatively new Hyundai i35. When the boys got into the car and saw they were in danger, one managed to phone and say they had been kidnapped. The abductors also saw that they were outnumbered when they only expected to give one or two boys a ride. An altercation broke out and the Arabs shot the boys in the back of the vehicle, drove to a deserted field and disposed of the bodies, but only after burning their vehicle and acquiring a new one. They dumped the corpses in the Halhul area near Hebron where they were found 18 days after the killing.

Initially, the officer who had received the original phone call took it as a prank when he could not get a reply. Only seven hours later, when the boys were reported missing, was a very extensive manhunt operation launched. By 13 June, Abu-isa and Qawasme were named as prime suspects. In the wake of the murders and numerous rocket attacks from Gaza, a 50-day Israeli response code named “Operation Protective Edge” was launched.

The show opens with real-world news footage about the three missing hitchhikers. There was no dramatic re-enactment. As a viewer, if totally unprepared for what is to be unveiled, one might reasonably suspect that the series will be about the deaths of those three boys, the pursuit of their killers and the aftermath. It is not. Instead, the show takes a one hundred and eighty degree turn and focuses on the kidnapping of an Arab teenager, Mohammed Abu Khdeir and his murder.

The killing and burning of his corpse are not shown in the series. However, the last 24 hours of his life before his disappearance form the focus of the first episode. When the body is found and discovered to have been burnt, the Jewish terrorist unit of Shabak or Shin Bet, the internal security service rather than the Mossad, took control of the case. Initially, the unit was convinced that Jews could not have committed the crime because “Jews would not commit such an atrocity.” They suspected it was an honour killing because the boy was probably secretly gay.

Hence, a major theme of the series – “fake news.” And there is plenty of that in the series as the security services cannot control the narrative in either the Jewish or the Arab community. In the latter, the boy murdered and burned is turned into a community martyr for a cause. In the Jewish press, especially that controlled by the Orthodox Jewish Community, the murder is either justified as legitimate revenge or rationalized as the deranged and irrational response to the murders of the three innocent Jewish teenagers.

The show adopts the perspective that every one is guilty to different degrees. Responses vary with character, culture, circumstances and a century old competition over the right to return. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes, thereby, effectively an unnamed character is this investigative crime drama of the discovery, investigation, trial and aftermath of the three killers, two religious teenagers from Jerusalem who are cousins and their uncle from the West Bank settlement of Geva Binyamin who operated an optical store in Jerusalem. In light of the witness testimony, the videos of the abduction

and tracking the car’s vehicle license and registration, the killers were very quickly tracked and the full confession of one led to the complete proof of the crime.

The drama is not about the crime itself but about the investigation, the trial, the side effects and the aftermath. I will describe the killers in the next blog and their conviction.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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