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Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews: Personal Stories from the Second Lebanon War Under Fire & Scorched Summer (2007) IDEAS

by Mitchell Bard & William Gutterman

For those who still recall the media coverage of the war between Israel and Hizballah in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, the memories are likely to be of the destruction in Lebanon. Though Israel endured more than 4,000 rocket attacks on its citizens in towns throughout northern Israel, almost all of the attention was given to the damage caused by the Israeli invasion forces that responded to Hizballah’s kidnapping of three Israeli soldiers and subsequent missile bombardment. Outside of Israel, however, few people heard the stories of what it was like to live in Israel during this horrific time. Under Fire (28 minutes) and Scorched Summer (52 minutes) are documentaries that allow Israelis to give their powerful eyewitness accounts.

Under Fire actually begins with the story of an Israeli Arab, Mourina Saloum. Many people do not realize that around 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab and that Hezbollah indiscriminately attacked Jews and Arabs alike. Michael Oren points out in the film that Katyusha rockets are quite inaccurate and cannot tell the difference between Jewish and Arab villages. In fact, approximately half of the civilian casualties in the war were non-Jewish Israelis, including Muslims, Druze and Christians. One direct hit on an Arab house killed the witness’s brother, who had been a lifeguard devoted to saving lives. The film stresses that only about 5 percent of rocket attacks actually fell anywhere near military targets, and that the vast majority of katyushas were meant to harm the civilian population.

A second story focused on the Zelinskys, an immigrant Ukrainian family in Nahariya, another town in northern Israel. The mother, father and daughter ran to shelter when the warning siren sounded. The daughter was crying because of the cold, and the father decided to run outside and grab a blanket. Rockets started falling, and the mother knew that the very worst could have happened. After the bombardment ended, Moshe Shitrit, a city employee saw a trail of blood and something unidentifiable. He realized it was a charred body without a head or limbs, the body of Galit Zelinsky’s father. This portion of the film is particularly gruesome, and the description of the corpse is chilling.

The movie is somewhat hampered by the narration of Walid Shoebat, a Palestinian who once was a member of the PLO and now speaks out against terrorism. He really did not have anything to do with the story being told and did not have a great voice for narration and his appearance on camera detracted from the witnesses’ stories.

Viewers should be warned that some parts of the film showing victims of the Hizballah attacks are grisly.

The movie includes a silly discussion of the development of weapons from rocks to missiles and later has an interview with an old Soviet colonel who explains the history of Katyusha rockets. He looks like a Cold War throwback in his Soviet uniform full of medals, but he does chillingly describe how  Hezbollah intentionally outfits the Katyusha rockets with shrapnel and ball-bearings to make them even more devastating and deadly. The film includes dozens of photographs as evidence of their lethality.

The interviews were primarily conducted in Hebrew because the filmmakers felt the witnesses could best express their feelings in their native language. While the subtitles were not complete, the film gives a good sense of the human toll in Israel rather than just statistics about the number of rockets or the cost of damage. The film makes a conscious effort to repeatedly point out that the victims on the Israeli side were not just Jews or soldiers and that most of those who suffered were non-Jews and regular citizens who were sucked into this violent war because of Hizballah’s terrorist leadership. The film does a great job of capturing the sentiments of these victims. As Mourina Saloum pleads with tears running down her face, “What did we do [to deserve this]?”

Scorched Summer has a much better off-camera narrator and starts with signs of life in the north after the war returning to normal. The film is a bit disjointed as it goes back and forth from the positive climate of today and the war. However, the filmmakers do an excellent job of putting the war in context. A brief history of Israeli-Lebanese hostilities is presented, as is a detailed explanation of the geography of northern Israel.

The most powerful interview in this film is with the wife of one of the Israeli soldiers kidnapped  by Hizballah, Karnit Goldwasser. She expresses her hope that her husband will return safely and says she continues to pray for peace and coexistence. Unfortunately, as a postscript to the film reports, Goldwasser and the other kidnapped Israeli soldier, Ehud Regev, were killed and their bodies returned in exchange for Lebanese terrorists held in Israeli jails.

Another revealing interview is with a family that has seven children, one who has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair. The family doesn’t know what to do when the war begins and debates whether to stay home or flee. Their house is comfortable; everyone has a bed and the kids would not have to be traumatized. Then they heard the boom of rockets falling and they decided they had to find a safer place to wait out the war. Their story is typical of the difficult decision confronted by the subjects in the film, as well as many other Israelis who lived in northern Israel in the summer of 2006. More than 500,000 Israelis ultimately left their homes and nearly a million came within range of Hizballah rockets.

This film also includes gruesome hospital photos. Most people are accustomed to seeing only Palestinian victims; the media rarely shows Israeli bodies riddled with shrapnel. In fact, Hezbollah intentionally targeted hospitals to maximize the number of victims, and the film not only captures the fear of those under attack, but also their disbelief with the brutality of their enemy.

Some of the stories in the two films are the same, but the production value of Scorched is better because of the  quality of the narration. In addition, this film does a better job of providing a context for the conflict and interviewing experts to back up the demographic and psychological claims they make. Dr. Danny Brom, for example, speaks about the psychological effects of fear on the nervous system and explains the increase in childhood anxiety problems among Israelis living in northern towns.

The films are not great works of art, but they are powerful and should be viewed by anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of Israeli suffering and the reasons that most Israelis today are reluctant to make concessions that could result in the population having to live once again under fire.

Sources: Mitchell Bard is the AICE Executive Director