Why the ‘Pallywood’ myth endures

A lasting legacy of the Second Intifada is the pernicious idea that Palestinians cannot be trusted to narrate their experience of Israeli oppression.

Footage taken by Talal Abu Rahma shows Jamal al-Durrah trying to protect his son, Muhammad, on September 30, 2000. (France 2/Wikimedia)
Footage taken by Talal Abu Rahma shows Jamal al-Durrah trying to protect his son, Muhammad, on September 30, 2000. (France 2/Wikimedia)

On Sept. 30, 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada, a Palestinian camera operator working for a French news outlet filmed what would become a notorious shooting incident in Gaza. During a protracted gun battle at Netzarim Junction, 12-year-old Muhammad al-Durrah and his father, Jamal, were caught in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire.

The camera operator, Talal Abu Rahma, filmed the pair taking shelter, and, after a few bursts of gunfire during which the filming is disrupted, the footage shows Muhammad collapsed in his father’s lap. Hit by a fatal shot to the abdomen, Muhammad succumbed to his wound shortly after.

The incident — often referred to as “the al-Durrah affair” — became ground zero for the hasbara term “Pallywood.” A portmanteau of “Palestinian” and “Hollywood,” it proposes that Palestinians stage dramatic scenes showing Israeli army shootings of civilians in order to serve as anti-Israel propaganda. The term was coined by Richard Landes, an American medievalist scholar, who made a short documentary in 2005 setting out his theory of what he calls “a bustling industry of alfresco cinema.”

The “Pallywood” charge is now a bustling industry in itself, having been liberally applied to incidents from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza to the fatal shooting of two Palestinian teenagers during Nakba Day protests in 2014. It has become a trope whose intention is to a priori cast doubt on any accusations of cruelty or use of excessive force by Israeli security forces, above all when they are caught on film. Indeed, according to the logic of the “Pallywood” slur, the very fact that violence has been documented on video is more reason to doubt its existence, not less.

Following in Landes’ footsteps, a legion of armchair forensic and behavioral psychology experts has sprung up to deconstruct videos of Israeli-on-Palestinian violence. The goal is to debunk what has been captured on film, and thus to undermine the entire Palestinian narrative of the occupation, one bullet at a time.

This war over images — and sympathy — did not begin with the “Pallywood” trope, and is hardly unique. As in all war zones, propaganda plays a heavy role in both Israeli and Palestinian societies — a practice that often interferes with efforts to decipher conflicting narratives and relay accurate information from the ground. Yet such propaganda cannot be divorced from the power differential between the two sides — one attempting to resist occupation and oppression, and the other trying to maintain, justify, or even deny it.

This asymmetry is a key reason why Israel has been especially sensitive to the narrative war, since well before the “Pallywood” trope emerged. The First Intifada, which began in 1987, made famous the iconic dynamic of Palestinian protesters — especially youths and women — facing off against Israeli tanks, armed with nothing more than stones.

Israel’s acknowledgement of the negative PR generated by its excessive use of force has long outlived that moment. In 2013, for example, the Israeli military announced it would cease using white phosphorus as a chemical weapon on Palestinians in Gaza because it “doesn’t photograph well.” (This statement came after the army had denied using white phosphorus during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, then denied using it in urban areas, and then admitted doing so with the caveat that its use was justified.)

‘Pallywood’ redux

Israel’s initial investigation into the al-Durrah shooting acknowledged the boy may have been struck by an Israeli bullet. But the head of the army’s forces in the occupied territories at the time, Maj.-Gen. Yom-Tov Samia, declared there was “great doubt” over this likelihood and said there remained an eminent possibility that al-Durrah was killed by a Palestinian bullet.

Five years later, not long after Landes’ film was released, this hedged speculation was withdrawn: another IDF officer instead claimed that the military was definitively not responsible for al-Durrah’s death. In 2013, the government went even further: at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal behest, the government launched an additional inquiry, which concluded that not only had the IDF not shot al-Durrah, he may not have been shot at all. “Pallywood” redux.

Such Pallywood enthusiasts are usually able to rely on Israeli government denials and obfuscations to support their claims. When Israeli security forces shot three Palestinian teenagers with live ammunition during a 2014 Nakba Day protest in Beitunia, killing two of them, Israeli officials — military and political alike — lined up to claim the CCTV footage of all three shootings had been doctored.

Prominent commentators in the diaspora joined them, with one suggesting that the accusations against the Israeli army may well constitute “a new version of the al-Dura [sic] blood libel,” invoking a medieval Christian antisemitic myth. The Israeli Supreme Court later sentenced an Israeli Border Police officer to an 18-month prison term for firing one of the bullets.

Similarly, when an Israeli soldier straddled 12-year-old Mohammed Tamimi and held him in a headlock to arrest him in the village of Nabi Saleh in August 2015, even as Tamimi had his left arm in a plaster cast, the “Pallywood” label again sprang into action. This time, the slur was directed against then-13-year-old Ahed Tamimi, a relative of Mohammed who was among those who prevented his arrest. Although the photographs of the event were indisputable, the UK-based Mail Online — egged on by hasbaristas — adjusted its headline on the incident to claim that Ahed had been “revealed as a prolific ‘Pallywood’ star.”

Members of the Tamimi family try to prevent an Israeli soldier from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 12, during a protest in the village of Nabi Saleh in the occupied West Bank, August 28, 2015. (Flash90)
Members of the Tamimi family try to prevent an Israeli soldier from arresting Mohammed Tamimi, 12, during a protest in the village of Nabi Saleh in the occupied West Bank, August 28, 2015. (Flash90)

Numerous social media posts further attempted to claim that Mohammed’s arm was not broken at all, showing photos of him with a cast on his other arm — omitting the fact that those photos were years old. The army’s defense of its soldiers’ actions was that Mohammed had been throwing stones, and that they did not realize he was a minor.

Defaming the oppressed

Even when the army confirms the version of events captured on film, the “Pallywood” charge fails to evaporate. In October 2015, Israeli undercover officers were filmed and photographed infiltrating a demonstration near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, keffiyehs wrapped around their heads, before drawing their guns and arresting demonstrators — one of whom they shot in the leg at point blank range.

The IDF Spokesperson confirmed this series of events, describing the shooting as “an accurate shot that disabled the central suspect.” Nonetheless, social media commenters on the video insisted it was a fraudulent “Pallywood” production. As Lisa Goldman poignantly wrote on +972 at the time, “[w]hen people can’t believe their eyes, it’s usually ideology.”

That ideology feeds into a broader, pernicious idea that acts of violence against Palestinians — whether by Israeli soldiers or civilians — are never what they seem. It is why, for example, when Israeli settlers kidnapped 16-year-old Muhammad Abu Khdeir outside his home in East Jerusalem and tortured him to death in 2014, the police initially suggested — to some acceptance — that Abu Khdeir had either been killed by his family because he was gay (he wasn’t), or that he was the victim of a local dispute.

It is why, after two Israeli settlers killed three members of the Dawabshe family in Duma in the summer of 2015, amateur detectives generated endless “evidence” that Jews were not responsible for the attack, including the claim that the graffiti found at the scene wasn’t the work of a native Hebrew-speaker. And it is why, in an attempt to show that Palestinians in Gaza are not suffering under blockade and military assaults, digital pro-Israel initiatives like to share (real and fake) photos of malls, cafes, and other areas of Gaza that have not been reduced to rubble by Israeli airstrikes — as if any semblance of Palestinian “normalcy” renders all of Israel’s destruction a work of fantasy, a mirage intended only to deceive.

Along with its malignant racism, the problem with the “Pallywood” charge — thriving two decades after the al-Durrah affair — is its duplicitous pretenses to caring about accuracy in journalism. In an era of “deepfakes” and bots, efforts to ensure truth in reporting are crucial. But the innumerable “investigations” into videos of Israeli violence against Palestinians are not about getting to the bottom of specific incidents: they are about inculcating the notion that Palestinians cannot be trusted on anything they say about their experiences at the hands of Israeli soldiers and settlers.

As a strategy, it long predates the “fake news” accusations that accompany less-than-flattering news stories about politicians and governments. But the intent is the same: to defame the oppressed, to delegitimize their struggles, and to avert the world’s gaze from the oppressor’s violence.

Correction, Oct. 16, 2020: This article was updated to clarify that white phosphorus can be used as a chemical weapon.