Sunday, 26 July 2009

Palestinians Take on Israeli Troops in an Imaginary Game of 'Wall Soccer'

The Media Line
Published Sunday, July 26, 2009

In recent weeks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced to an imaginary game of soccer.

It all began with a seemingly innocent ball in a TV advertisement for Cellcom, Israel's leading cellphone provider.

The advertisement opens with a squad of Israeli soldiers driving along a walled section of the barrier built by Israel to separate the West Bank from Israel.

Suddenly, something hits the hood of the soldiers' Jeep. Leaping from the vehicle ready for battle, the soldiers quickly realize it was a loose soccer ball kicked, presumably, by Palestinians playing soccer on the other side of the barrier.

The soldiers kick the ball back over the wall, call in 'reinforcements' and within minutes over two dozen Israeli soldiers are playing soccer over the wall with unnamed, unseen Palestinians on the other side. The soldiers cheer each other on and jump around happily to a soundtrack of upbeat, heartening music extolling Cellcom’s products.

"At the end of the day, what do we all really want?" the voiceover asks rhetorically. "To have a little fun."

To many Israeli viewers, such advertisements cleverly bring much-needed wit to an otherwise bleak situation, eliciting feelings of hope and camaraderie between the populations on both sides of the barrier.

But to the Palestinians living on the other side of that barrier, however, the advertisement was an Israeli company trying to financially capitalize on a naive fantasy of brotherly rapport created in the minds of Israelis unaware of the reality the barrier symbolizes for them.

The original advert:

Simple parodies, most produced by Israelis, began appearing immediately. One depicted Israel responding to the soccer ball with a missile strike. The soldiers, seen in the original Cellcom advertisement cheering on the soccer game taking place across the wall, are seen in the parody cheering and dancing as missiles are dropped on Palestinian territories.

"What do we all really want?" asks the original Cellcom voiceover as the missiles strike home. "To have a little fun."

Another parody depicts soldiers repeatedly kicking a soccer ball onto a bound, blindfolded Palestinian on the other side of the barrier.

Activists in the West Bank village of Bi'lin, a hot spot of activism against the Israeli barrier, took the parody to a new level, trying to incorporate efforts to kick around a soccer ball into their weekly demonstration against the barrier.

"I wish that commercial were reality," Iyad Burnat, head of the Bi'lin Popular Committee, told The Media Line. "But soldiers do not 'play' with us, and this is not our choice."

"We often try to speak with the soldiers and say let's talk, or even play together," he said, "but each week we have non-violent protests against the barrier and they respond very violently."

"We are always trying to come up with new strategies for non-violent resistance," Burnat explained. "When we saw what they had on Israeli TV it was suggested that we use the soccer ball idea to show the soldiers that these are non-violent demonstrations - we are just playing football... But they responded with the usual tear gas, rubber bullets and high-pressured water cannons."

Bi'lin's residents' efforts to play soccer with the Israeli soldiers were filmed and used to produce yet another sarcastic parody of the original advertisement. In the clip, which has been viewed over 110,000 times, documentary footage of the Palestinian activists trying to play soccer near the barrier as Israeli soldiers respond with tear gas is contrasted with the optimistic soundtrack from the original Cellcom advertisement.

"This barrier causes extensive suffering to us and many other Palestinians," Muhammad Hatib, a Bi'lin resident and member of the Bi'lin Popular Committee, told The Media Line. "We want to show the reality, so we started playing football and kicked it over to the army."

"The army's response was violence, tear gas and grenades," Hatib continued. "No one expected any other behaviour. Every week we hold non-violent protests and a lot of us have been killed and injured."

Bi'lin residents, who have been engaged in a long battle with Israel over the presence of the Israeli barrier in the village, argue the Israeli cellular company was seeking to profit off false Israeli impressions of the morality of the country's armed forces.

"They didn't even show the faces of Palestinians, as if there is no one on the other side," Hatib added. "They just showed a beautiful and kind army, as if all they do is play soccer, dance and smile."

A number of Cellcom employees interviewed by The Media Line did not feel the controversy was deserved.

"Some workers felt it was fine, some didn't, but people are talking about our company and that's the point," said one mid-level Cellcom employee, who asked not to be named.

"Personally I didn't understand why they made such a big deal," the Cellcom employee added. "It's a nice clip actually. It's dark humor but doesn't cross the line and it shows that actually we do have something in common... not everyone wants wars."

Kobi Snitz, an Israeli activist who regularly attends the Bi'lin demonstrations, said the Cellcom advertisement plays on a common distortion in many Israelis' approach to the conflict.

"To tell jokes about Palestinians and the situation they face is not unusual in Israel," he told The Media Line. "What makes this ad attractive to Israelis is the idea that the soldiers are decent people and the situation is not only tolerable, but something that can be made light of."

"That's an offensive distortion," he said. "For a sense of perspective, imagine the reaction if someone made a funny commercial exploiting Jewish suffering throughout history. That wouldn't be seen as funny."

It is not clear how long the soccer protest strategies will continue, but Bi'lin residents say without reciprocation from the Israeli side, they may soon run out of balls.

"We had three soccer balls," Bi'lin resident Hatib added. "We played a bit and then kicked two of them over the barrier. But after the first two balls weren't returned some kids took the last ball and said 'it's not worth it, the Israelis will never really kick it back.'"

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