HOLLYWOOD - Hany Abu-Assad's film "Paradise Now" left few Israelis indifferent. The movie, which depicts the story of two young Palestinians in Nablus who were chosen by a local terror group to carry out a suicide bombing in Israel, and which trails their preparations ahead of the attack, infuriated many in the country, most notably publicist Irit Linor, who in an opinion column in Ynet called "Paradise Now" "a quality Nazi film."
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, the Israeli-born director of the Golden Globe award winner for Best Foreign Film emerges as no less controversial than his recent production. At the beginning of our talk he demands that when quoting him I would refrain from using the term "terrorist" to describe people sent to explode themselves in buses and markets.
This is an act of terror, but this terror derives from another terror, Abu-Assad explains. Suicide bombings are a reaction to your terror, he says, and suggests the most accurate term to describe a suicide bombing would be "a counter-terrorist act."
The occupiers and the occupation are the real terrorists. The real terror is stealing the Palestinians' right to live free on their land, Abu-Assad claims.
Confronted with the statement that his words seem to come close to justifying the bombers' actions, Abu-Assad says that in order to stop terror, there is a need to look at the full picture.
'Jews forget they were victims'
Abu-Assad deeply resents Linor's article, which stirred a row of its own upon publication. Articles like this make it harder for me to fight prejudice against Jews, he says.
Someone dares speak up against your movie and already it's hard for you to avoid being critical toward Jews?
They are not just opposed to my film; they also claim to represent all Jews, he states. This is why such an article is "racist and fascist," he says.
Abu-Assad says Linor truly believes people who belong to another nation are different than her. She thinks people who don't accept the fact the occupation is the source for suicidal acts in effect says the Palestinian culture is the root of terror, evil, he explains.
It's hard to see the way Jews, who were once the victims of prejudice and paid a heavy price for anti-Semitism, today act the same, he states. "It makes you want to stop believing in humanity."
Even during the Holocaust, people did not strap on a bomb and set out to kill innocent people.
This was a different situation that only lasted six years, Abu-Assad replies, adding that in the first 30 years of occupation there were no suicide bombings. Who knows what would have happened in Germany had the oppression continued for 30 years, he asks rhetorically.
Abu-Assad stresses he is a pacifist who believes any killing is wrong, and that he advocates a non-violent struggle as the right method for obtaining one's goals. However, he states, while he currently has the privilege to make such a stand, in a different situation his moral position may have been different.
In other words, had you been living in the territories, you would have become a shahid (martyr)?
Abu-Assad hesitates for a second before replying, "yes." He recounts an episode in which he was humiliated by a soldier at the Kalandiya checkpoint near Jerusalem, and says this was what made him realize what runs through the heads of people who later become suicide bombers.
You feel like such a coward it kills you, he describes, saying this cowardice makes people start hating life and feel impotent.
I realized, Abu-Assad explains, that when a man systematically goes through such humiliation, he chooses to kill his own impotency by carrying out an act of "let me die with the philistines."
And there are no suicide bombers who do what they do because of anti-Semitism?
That's a racist notion. No one hates Jews because they are Jews like in Europe, he replies. People have a reason for hating Israelis. You force them to live in refugee camps, and they tell you 'our home is in Ashdod'," he states.
Do you really believe they kill in order to kill Jews, He asks. They are no different than you as people. If you believe they are different, that's racism, he adds.
According to Abu-Assad, it is the situation that brought about the loss of control. I think, he says, that you have been "brainwashed" by the country to believe all Arabs are either a security risk or a danger to democracy.
When asked what he believes could be a solution for the conflict, Abu-Assad says equality is the key.
The solution would come once you recognize the equal rights of Jews and Arabs over all the land, including Tel Aviv and Nazareth, Abu-Assad declares, adding this also includes recognition in the Right of Return. After you recognize these principles, we would be able to split the country 50-50. This would be the practical solution, he says.
'I'm not Israeli'
Abu-Assad, was born and raised in Nazareth, but left Israel more than 20 years ago, and never returned to the country for a permanent stay. He resides in Holland, where he creates most of his films and secures most of the funding for his projects.
As a Palestinian teen, you don't have the same privileges others have, he says. Abu-Assad says he was a curious person that knew that if he stays in Israel he would become crippled, because he wouldn't have the same access to knowledge Israelis have.
I remind him he may become the first Israeli director to win an Oscar. He, in return, chuckles.
"Darling," he says with slight cynicism and contempt, "I am not Israeli."
But you carry an Israeli passport.
That's true, but I'm not Israeli, he says. Israel calls itself a Jewish state, and I'm not Jewish. If it becomes everybody's state, then I would be able to be called Israeli, he concludes.
I cannot accept the Jewish state as long as there is no settlement over the land, he adds.