Five years ago, the murder of four teens sparked a 50-day war between Gaza and Israel.
It began on June 12, 2014, when three Israeli Jewish adolescents hitchhiking home from an Israeli settlement in the West Bank went missing. Their disappearance led to a wide-ranging search for their abductors, called “Operation Brother’s Keeper,” which saw the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians.
The search efforts ended on June 30 when the teens’ bodies were discovered in a field near Hebron. (The suspects, Hamas members Marwan Qawasmeh and Amar Abu-Isa, remained at large until they were killed by the IDF in a September 23 shootout.) On July 2, a day after the hitchhikers’ burial, three Jewish settlers seeking revenge for their death abducted a 16-year-old Palestinian boy from the steps outside his father’s store in Shuafat, East Jerusalem. The boy’s burned body was found hours later in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
By July 8, in the midst of responding riots in Arab neighborhoods and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Israel and Hamas-governed Gaza were at war.
These killings and the conflict that followed — code-named “Operation Protective Edge” by the IDF — remain vivid in the collective memory of Israelis and Palestinians, but accounts of precisely what happened often diverge. So when filmmakers Hagai Levi, Joseph Cedar and Tawfik Abu Wael came together to make a fictional portrait of these events, they decided the best practice would be to allow for contradictions.
The result, “Our Boys,” is a 10-part series that premieres internationally on HBO on August 12 in a co-production with the Israeli broadcaster Keshet Media Group.
“I think what the audience will get is really two separate stories around the same event,” Cedar told The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who will become the Forward’s editor-in-chief in September, during a July 29 panel in Manhattan.
In order to capture these dual narratives, Cedar, an Israeli Jew, wrote and directed the scenes that followed the Israeli Jewish narrative, and Abu Wael, a Palestinian who lives in Israel, was in charge of the Palestinian thread of the story. In cases where the plots overlapped, both directors were on set.
“It was a bit like a boxing ring, where [Abu Wael] would coach his Palestinian actors on one corner, I would coach my Israeli actors on the other,” Cedar told Rudoren. “And then they’d meet in front of the camera and… nothing would work,” he joked.
As Keshet Media Group CEO Avi Nir told Rudoren: “You put two Jews in a room and you have four opinions, you put two Jews and a Palestinian in a room and you have 40 opinions.”
A further complication, Abu Wael said, is that the series’ point of view is, by nature of its being filmed in Israel by an Israeli studio, predominantly Israeli.
“I make this compromise because you can’t tell everything,” Abu Wael told Rudoren. “[Hamas] didn’t start [the conflict] with the kidnapping of the three boys,” he noted. “Palestinians are killed every week by Israeli soldiers, they have permission to do it because of the occupation.”
But the first two episodes, both set to air Monday, take an even-handed — if at times evasive — approach.
The show opens with real-world news footage about the missing hitchhikers, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah. Levi said that the filmmakers judged that a dramatization of the teenagers’ abduction would be too close to home. However, the parents of the murdered Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir gave their blessing for him to be included as a character; he is played by Ram Masarweh, and the final days of his life occupy much of the series’ first episode. His death is kept offscreen; the search for its perpetrators drives the early action.
“Our Boys” plays out, in its early episodes, as a sort of crime procedural focused on the death of Abu Khdeir. As Cedar told Rudoren, he and Levi were interested in the nature of Israeli “aggression,” rather than victimhood.
The series begins as the Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, tries to get ahead of any plans Jewish nationalists might have to retaliate against Palestinians for the murder of Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrah. After Abu Khdeir is abducted, the nationalists the Shin Bet are eyeing, known as the Hilltop Boys, serve as red herrings for the investigation. When the Shin Bet discover the burned body, few among them believe that Jews did it, and instead look into whether it was an honor killing.
But as disinformation mounts, the main agent, the fictional Simon (Shlomi Elkabetz, a filmmaker in his first acting role), insists when others don’t — or won’t — that the culprits behind Abu Khdeir’s murder are, in fact, Jews. If you followed the developments in 2014 closely, you know that Simon’s hunch is correct, and Abu Khdeir’s murderers were Jewish settlers. The slow unfolding of the murder investigation feels like a concession made to viewers outside of Israel. That concession doesn’t entirely work; viewers are likely to see to whom the evidence is pointing well before the Shin Bet does.
Thankfully, the show does not, on the whole, feel like a watered-down explainer for those hazy on the details of the murders. Nor is it didactic in explaining the realities on the ground in East and West Jerusalem. But it is specific enough in its inquiry to probe such a relatively local issue as the secondary status of Mizrahi Jews in Israel.
“Our Boys,” despite being made by two separate studios and directors, isn’t harmed by its split focus. The stories feel at odds only in that they feature characters whose ideas of the world rely on different narratives of who exactly is the aggressor and who is the victim. And the stories are tied together by documentary footage: of thousands of Israeli Jews flooding the streets after the hitchhikers were found, shouting “Death to Arabs;” of protesting Palestinians, their faces covered by keffiyehs, setting fires in East Jerusalem after Abu Khdeir’s disappearance; of clashes between those Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces armed with guns and smoke grenades.
That seemingly charged footage is, in fact, neutral, because it’s documentary. The creators cannily chose to avoid the risk of playing into any one narrative by dramatizing the events. The video instead serves merely as evidence that this all happened; make of it what you will. “At the end,” Abu Wael told Rudoren, “it’s a personal interpretation of the truth.”
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org