Israeli television has made some major contributions to the global television market in recent years. Shows such as “B’Tipul” and “Hatufim” have achieved worldwide acclaim, either in their original formats or as their Emmy award-winning adaptations, “In Treatment” and “Homeland.”
Now, attention has turned toward “Fauda,” the first Israeli political action drama series to bring the real-life complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the TV screen. To date it has been screened in Israel only, but the first two episodes have been premiered at events and film festivals in the United States. The show has just been renewed for a second season, and it could very well be the next Israeli TV sensation to hit international screens.
Its depiction of the tensions of war and the frailty of human life in the Middle East has gripped its domestic audience to the extent that a critic writing in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot referred to it as “more than a television event, ‘Fauda’ is also a political event…. It is authentic, honest.”
The show’s plot treads what appears to be a very fine line between fiction and reality, though every one of its 12 episodes opens with a disclaimer informing the viewer that “’Fauda’” is a fictional series and is not based on reality. The portrayed events are pure fiction.” It is not difficult to see why this is necessary.
The series tells the story of an elite undercover unit of combat soldiers known as the mista’arvim, in which officers are trained in the culture and customs of Palestinians in order to carry out covert military operations. The team is trying to hunt down a notorious Hamas terrorist, Abu Ahmad (played by Hisham Suliman), also known as the Panther, whom they thought to be dead. Yet he is alive and living underground in the West Bank.
Fauda means “chaos” in Arabic, but it also became an important word for activities in the West Bank and Gaza between 2000 and 2007, when the region was considered to be a fauda area. More specifically, it is a code word that defines a situation in which the true identity of the undercover unit has been discovered and they need to abort their mission immediately.
Since “Fauda” went on the air in Israel in February on the YES cable channel, the program seems to have caused a national televisual epidemic. Critics from both the political left and right have lauded the series. The response has surprised and even shocked its creators.
“It took over, really. It was all over the TV networks, the Internet, the newspapers and on radio talk shows. Everyone was discussing ‘Fauda,’” said co-creator, journalist and leading Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff. Both he and creator and actor Lior Raz, who also stars in the show, believed that few people would watch a TV show about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It felt especially risky, since the show aired only six months after the end of the last Gaza conflict, Operation Protective Edge, which took place in the summer of 2014.
But “Fauda” seems to have struck a chord. From religious settlers and people living in development towns to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, “it got everyone,” Issacharoff said.
“Fauda” is unique in that it exposes both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is the first time that an Israeli TV drama has depicted the lives of terrorists as people with wives and children.
“Everyone can relate to someone or something in this show,” Raz said. “We’re talking about the price of the war here. Both sides. Everyone pays the price for their actions.” Indeed, Nasrin, Abu Ahmad’s wife (played by Hanan Hillo), points out: “What’s the difference? In the end one lives and one dies. Right?”
The show may be an imagined reality, but its premise is based on the experiences of its creators. Raz served in one such mista’arvim unit during his mandatory army service, and Issacharoff was stationed in the West Bank. “I was post-traumatic,” Raz, 43, said of his period after the army. For many years he carried the burden of his experience, unaware of its affects. He says that writing “Fauda” was a form of healing for him.
Raz plays Doron Kavillio, a former commander who has retired from active service and is attempting to adjust to civilian life by living and working on a vineyard with his family. Enticed out of retirement, he agrees to rejoin the unit. It is, Raz said, a role that he can relate to. Initially the broadcaster had been looking for a well-known actor to carry the show, but Raz passed the audition, and the role has made him into a star.
How much of the series is based on real events? According to Raz: “The reality is that there are terrorists and there are undercover units. Many of the stories are fiction, but many are also taken from our lives.” One such example is the dedication to Iris Azulai at the end of the fourth episode. Azulai was Raz’s girlfriend of three years and was stabbed to death in 1990, when she was 19, by a Hamas terrorist in Jerusalem.
Yet some of what the viewer may perceive as real isn’t, and vice versa. “If I were to tell you exactly what is fiction and what isn’t, I think you’d be shocked,” Issacharoff said. Talking on the radio station TLV1, he described “Fauda” as having a “romance with reality.” True events and stories that may sound familiar are mixed with fictionalized narratives, such as the creation of the protagonist, arch-terrorist Abu Ahmed. Aspects of his character were taken from the Hamas activist Ibrahim Hamed, who operated in the West Bank between 1999 and 2007. Hamed evaded capture by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet many times, but they knew that he had one major weakness— his wife. Eventually, in 2006, Israeli security forces arrested him. A military court convicted him in May 2012. The prosecution recommended that he receive 56 life sentences.
The series was shot in Kfar Qasem, an Israeli-Arab village, during the Gaza conflict last summer, with the full cooperation and support of its mayor. The show’s cast is made up of both Arab and Israeli actors and, unusual for an Israeli TV drama, 75% of its dialogue is in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles. This was essential: The language of the Hamas fighters and undercover agents had to be Arabic for authenticity, Issacharoff said. However, prior to the show, none of the Israelis spoke fluent Arabic. They all had to be taught. The Arabic spoken is a dialect specific to Ramallah.
The show’s use of Arabic has also brought “Fauda” to Israeli-Arab audiences. “They can see that the other side is more complicated than they thought,” Raz said.
Watching “Fauda” is every bit as compelling as it is painful. The show does not shy away from brutality, including suicide bombings. Characters do not escape criticism for their actions, but the script refrains from heavy-handed moral judgment. Perhaps that is one of the reasons the “Fauda” buzz has traveled across the border. Hamas, which has argued that its image was damaged by the show, has also put up a link to the first episode on its website.
“I think that although they blame us for being violent, it’s interesting for them to see the way that an Israeli TV drama is not only trying to show Hamas as terrorists,” Issacharoff suggested. “I think in the end they understood that [the series] is not that bad.”
Anne Joseph is a London-based freelance journalist.