War, Death & Animation

By Lynfield, Ben | The Independent (London, England), November 17, 2008 | Go to article overview
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War, Death & Animation

Lynfield, Ben, The Independent (London, England)

An acclaimed new cartoon film has stirred Israel's conscience aboutits responsibility for the notorious 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Ben Lynfield reports from Jerusalem

Until a matter of months ago, very few Israelis realised that their army fired flares to light up Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while Lebanese Christian militiamen committed the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians there in 1982.

But Ari Folman, who as a 19-year-old soldier fired some of the flares, makes their descent through the sky over Beirut's beachfront one of the recurring images of Waltz With Bashir, his "animated documentary" that premiers in Britain this week.

In Israel, the film has rekindled discussion about the divisive invasion of Lebanon that was initially billed by Ariel Sharon, who was defence minister at the time, as a limited push to halt PLO rocket attacks, and the extent of Israeli responsibility for the Sabra and Shatila massacre where the estimated number of victims ranged from 700 to more than 3,000. Folman has said he had no idea the massacre was being committed when he shot the flares.

The killings by Phalangist militiamen dispatched into the camps by Israel came after their leader, Bashir Gemayel, president-elect of Lebanon, was assassinated in a bombing wrongly blamed on Palestinians. An Israeli state commission of inquiry set up as a result of a tide of public protest in the massacre's wake found that Mr Sharon, today comatose from a stroke nearly three years ago, bore "personal responsibility" for not having foreseen the danger that the Phalangists would commit the slaughter. He was forced to give up the defence portfolio, something that did not prevent him from being elected as premier in 2001 and re-elected in 2003. Lebanon, for its part, has never seriously investigated the massacre.

The film has been widely acclaimed in Israel. One reviewer, Eitan Weitz, writing for the website Parshan (Commentator), termed it "required viewing" for those aged 16 and 17 nearing their mandatory military service, for army reservists in their thirties and for mothers of soldiers. But not everyone is happy about the film's screening abroad. Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University with right-of-centre views, voiced concern even though he has not seen the film. "The Israeli audience knows the atrocities were committed by Lebanese Christian militiamen and can sort out how much responsibility is ours and how much is theirs. Foreign audiences will be blaming Israel for everything and this could reinforce that."

A flaw in the movie is that it gives the impression that the massacre lasted only one night and was stopped the following morning. It began the evening of 16 September 1982 and ended on 18 September. Some Israeli viewers say Folman lets Israel off too easily. "The Israeli soldiers are shown as being good, as being people who are tormented by what is going on," says Ronit Shpiner, 35, a psychologist from Jerusalem. "Ultimately, the moral responsibility is taken off of them even though those who saw the slaughter should have stopped it."

She added: "The movie depicts the soldiers as the victims of the massacre because they were traumatised by it." A bartender, Lidya Ophir, 26, said: "I think the movie is saying that probably the Israeli army is just as responsible as the people with the guns inside the camps."

Folman says the movie aims to dissuade young people from fighting in wars.

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