The Value Of an Arab Life

A Star Documentary of the Other Israel Film Festival


By Ron Dicker

Published October 25, 2010, issue of November 05, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Shlomi Eldar, a TV journalist in Israel, thought he had created a simple feel-good documentary about saving the life of a Palestinian baby. Then, the plot thickened like a Hollywood drama.

“Precious Life” begins optimistically enough. An anonymous Israeli whose soldier son was killed by Palestinians agrees to put up $50,000 for a bone marrow transplant to heal a Gaza boy named Muhammad. A frantic cross-border hunt for a donor match pays off. Surgery is eventually successful. Muhammad begins a tricky recovery from what might have otherwise been a fatal autoimmune disease.

Saving a Single Life in Gaza:  In a bone marrow transplant paid for anonymously by an Israeli whose son was killed by Palestinians, Muhammed is treated for a life-threatening autoimmune disease.
Saving a Single Life in Gaza: In a bone marrow transplant paid for anonymously by an Israeli whose son was killed by Palestinians, Muhammed is treated for a life-threatening autoimmune disease.

But in a jolt to the film’s established vibe of kinship, the boy’s mother, Raida, declares that she would be happy for her son to someday strap on explosives, blow up Israelis and himself, and reclaim Jerusalem for the Palestinians. Eldar could not hide his sense of betrayal.

“It was a paradox,” he told the Forward at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie screened in the Real to Reel category. “First I saw how much she cared for Muhammad. And then she told me that life is nothing. How could she be fighting for his life, yet life is nothing? And send Muhammad to be a suicide bomber?”

A demoralized Eldar walked away from the project for a day, but Muhammad’s father, Faozi, convinced him to finish “Precious Life.” The filmmaker in Eldar eventually realized he had captured a transcendent moment. The humanist in him tried to make sense of it.

“Maybe we have to understand that life has become very cheap because of the war, the way of life, the everyday survival in Gaza,” he said during the interview. “I can’t blame her when she talked about it.”

The film has been bought by HBO and will air in 2011. It is doubtful that the cable network would have snatched it up had it not been for the shocking revelations about the mother’s attitudes. Perhaps Eldar’s own television station would not have rejected his story proposal had it known foreseen these developments. Eldar himself only originally figured he had material for a 30-minute heart tugger at best, “a light in all the darkness.”

But whenever the Israelis and Palestinians are involved, darkness is not far behind. Families back in Gaza cursed Raida as a traitor for accepting Jewish help. The eruption of tensions — and then outright war — threatened to put the kibosh on the entire rescue mission.

Eldar began pursuing the story when his access to Gaza was cut off after Hamas took power and Israel established a blockade. No longer could he commute to Gaza, which had been fertile ground for Eldar’s human interest reporting. To cast light on the Palestinians’ plight, Eldar turned to hospitals on the Israel side.

Muhammad’s Jewish pediatrician, Raz Somech, told Eldar that without urgent action, the baby in his care would soon die. Eldar used his platform to issue a public plea for donors, and he was able to secure a financial benefactor. He then orchestrated the delicate politics of a hunt for a blood match among Muhammad’s relatives in Gaza, and the relay of samples at the border crossing.

Eldar has been criticized in some camps, including the Hollywood trade daily Variety, for being self-aggrandizing and for occupying too much film time. He said it all was unavoidable. As a crucial facilitator of the boy’s treatment, how could he not be a focus of the narrative?

“I realized that I am a part of it,” he said. “I can bring the blood from Gaza. I’m the only one who has a connection with the Palestinians, with the Israelis at the checkpoint. I can do it. I can save a life. This was when I became part of the story.”

Eldar recalled an off-camera moment when Muhammad slept in a car on the way back to Gaza — head on Raida’s lap, legs on Eldar’s lap. The filmmaker said: “I told Raida, ‘You know, this is the first time I feel like part of his life.’ And she says: ‘Are you kidding? A little part? A big part. You are one of the men who saved Muhammad.’’”

The filmmaker once remarked that there was no message in the movie, but he has since taken a new stance. “When I finished, I thought there was a chance for peace between these people. I don’t think the government will do anything for peace, the Israeli side or the Palestinian side. But I think the message of this film is that it is possible. We are looking to understand, even to love, each other.”

There was little sense of optimism during the filming. In what it said was retaliation for repeated rocket attacks, the Israelis launched a bloody three-week offensive on Gaza in December 2008. The fighting took the lives of more than 1,100 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. A Palestinian doctor ruefully observes in the film that while the Israelis struggle for years to save the life of one Arab boy, they can kill scores of Arabs in an instant.

The postscript is encouraging. Mother and healthy son, the latter now 3, attended the premiere of the film with Eldar at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Raida then had a conversation on Skype with Eldar when he was at the Telluride Film Festival. Mohammad has a checkup in Jerusalem every six months, so Eldar and the family get a chance to catch up in person.

Eldar and Raida are friends, he said, but the filmmaker will not likely forget her fateful words. “A small story about healing a sick baby became something else,” Eldar said.

Ron Dicker is a freelance writer based in New York who writes regularly for the Forward.

“Precious Life” will be shown at the Other Israel Film Festival on November 18, at the JCC in Manhattan.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  •'s Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.