May 10, 2006

Israeli film on Lebanon pullout flouts military myth

By Tali Caspi

MAJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights (Reuters) - Just as the sun
sets, an explosion rocks a mountain fort close to Israel's
heavily guarded border with Lebanon.

In years past, such a blast might have sent Israeli
soldiers scrambling to fend off attack by Lebanese Hizbollah

But this time the commotion is staged, and the only
shooting is by film cameras for the last scene of "Beaufort," a
drama about Israel's whirlwind 2000 withdrawal from southern
Lebanon after a 22-year occupation.

For director Joseph Cedar, who spent much of his mandatory
Israeli army service dodging Hizbollah ambushes in the
so-called "security zone," making the movie was a catharsis of

"So many scenes are taken from my own experiences ... Just
putting it on the screen is therapeutic," he told Reuters on
the set, a Crusader-era castle chosen for its resemblance to
the Beaufort Fort visible just across the Lebanese border.

"It's a story of any mountain in any battle. Soldiers died
to capture it, died to protect it, and then found out its
insignificance," Cedar said after re-enacting the demolition of
the Israeli garrison at the fort by withdrawing troops.

Partly funded by Israel's government, the production
reflects a shift in popular perceptions of a military that was
long a force for national unity, its exploits against Arab foes
-- no matter how bloody -- invariably viewed as self-defence.

Cedar describes "Beaufort" as a tale of scared combatants
who, for all their patriotism, are willing to "run for their
lives" rather than die for the principle of staying put.

Such talk may be a sign of the times in Israel.

Last year's pullout from the Gaza Strip, and the prospect
of similar moves in the occupied West Bank in the face of more
than five years of Palestinian revolt, challenged an Israeli
axiom that keeping land won in war is a strategic necessity.

"Today, we look at ourselves as a normal society, under
normal threats," said Yossi Klein Halevi of the Shalem Center,
a conservative Israeli think-tank. "We are in a new, sober
period where we are no longer deluded by myths."

Yet some Israelis worry that military cohesion and fighting
spirit may be sapped by less-than-flattering screen depictions.


While few doubt that the Lebanon withdrawal greatly reduced
casualties on both sides of the border, the consensus is that
it also bolstered the anti-Israel hostility of Hizbollah's
patrons, Iran and Syria, and emboldened Palestinians to take up

To this day, Hizbollah's satellite television station,
al-Manar, broadcasts videos of its attacks on Beaufort and
other former Israeli military positions in a bid to boost
support among Lebanese still embittered by the occupation.

"The officers and soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces
want to know what they are risking their lives for," former
chief of staff Moshe Yaalon said in a recent speech.

"Our enemies draw encouragement from Israeli self-doubt."

Historians say the shift in perceptions began in 1982, when
Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated aim of crushing
Palestinian guerrillas, only to end up inflaming a civil war.
Israel's image was further tarnished by crackdowns in the West
Bank and Gaza.

Previously, Israeli war films -- such as "Operation
Thunderbolt," about the commando rescue of Jewish airline
passengers held by hijackers in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976 --
rarely hesitated to celebrate battlefield heroes.

Nowadays, filmmakers largely shun military issues, unless
they are incidental to the story. The last Israeli drama about
troops in southern Lebanon, "Yossi & Jagger" (2002), focused on
an affair between two gay officers.

A 1986 film about the perils of Israel's occupation of
southern Lebanon, "Richochets," began as an instructional
newsreel commissioned by the army. Realizing the box office
potential, the top brass authorized the film's development and
release, despite its less than triumphant tone.

"Beaufort" drew censure when it became known that the army
was providing logistical support, even though some of those
cast as soldiers had avoided compulsory national service.

"This is contemptible," said Eli Ben-Sham, whose conscript
son died in a helicopter crash en route to south Lebanon.

"While our sons are taken away for three years' service,
sometimes never to return, others are learning how to act," he
told Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.

The U.S.-born Cedar is no stranger to controversy. His last
two films, "Time of Favor" (2000) and "Campfire" (2004),
offered unvarnished portraits of the Jewish settlers with whom
he was once aligned.

Both swept Israel's version of the Academy Awards.

"I was surprised by how the army officials who were working
with us understood the importance of this movie, even though
it's not an obvious choice for them to have backed," he said.

"For me, the withdrawal from Lebanon was probably the most
optimistic thing that happened in Israel in the last 50 years,"
he said. "It changed the value system in Israel."

But like many Israelis, Cedar does not envisage peace soon.

"We can see the real Beaufort from here," he said. "It
seems close, but Israelis cannot go back there. All the
soldiers that we've been talking to would love to go back just
to see it one last time. But they can't."

(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine in Beirut)