The First 54 Years – An Abbreviated Manual for Military Occupation (2021)

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It is hard not to despair of the world and the depravities that humans will perpetrate as you watch this measured dissection of the mechanics of a military occupation. Avi Mograbi balances the message by having former Israeli soldiers dispassionately recount their part in the occupation of Palestine, illustrating a system that seeks to colonise, dehumanise and deconstruct a nation.

Israeli director Avi Mograbi talks quietly to camera, like an avuncular professor gently taking you through the fundamentals of political science. Using the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip from the 60s until today as the example, he illustrates the stages that any occupying power might go through to achieve its aims, whether that be ownership of land or eradication of a people. Interspersed is largely silent footage that illustrates the stages and first-hand accounts from former soldiers. They tell of not just what they did but what they thought and felt, what they were told and what was normal.

It is understandably depressing, not just for the emotion it provokes for the Palestinian people detained, dispossessed, brutalised and killed but also for how easy it seems to be to normalise the inhuman treatment of people. Once you convince an army and invading ‘settlers’ that Palestinians (or indigenous people in any colonised nation) are less than human, then the harm done to them inexorably escalates. When you give them no recourse to justice, their only path is violence. It seems a particularly patriarchal approach – not that women can’t be perpetrators of atrocities but that the system of patriarchy encourages dominance. Watching footage as soldiers cheer as homes are blown up just for the sake of destruction seems particularly indicative of a belief in power over humanity.

I couldn’t help thinking how these stages of occupation can be applied to the colonisation of my country Australia – forcibly acquiring land and creating an entitlement, restricting movement and autonomy, refusing recourse to justice, reducing the proportion of the population, destroying land. What is most sobering is the realisation that this is not something that is in the past, it continues to this day.

Although the soldiers talk candidly, it’s a while before they talk about doing anything worse than beatings and detainment. They touch on the normalisation of killing toward the end and that they were given no direction to differentiate between armed fighters and civilians of any age, but it doesn’t feel like a mea culpa. There is no talk of the sexual assault of women, something that it is hard to believe wasn’t another way to dehumanise the population, or any recognition from the individuals of their accountability in perpetrating war crimes. Perhaps this is to be expected as those willing to speak up are unlikely to want to admit responsibility for atrocities. We can read between the lines though.

There is no happy ending to this, other than a strengthening of the viewers commitment to fight for people’s human rights.

Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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