The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual For Military Occupation is a documentary about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, framed as an instructive manual for the audience on how to occupy a territory on a long-term basis. Avi Mograbi, the filmmaker, directs his instructions straight to camera, directs them in the second person – this is how you go about an occupation, this is how you go about suppressing dissent.
Unlike so many films about the Israeli occupation, this film is not made by Palestinians, trying to get the word of their suffering out into the world. It is made by Israelis, and is composed largely of testimonies of ex-Israeli soldiers, speaking of their first-hand experience as part of the machinery of occupation. It is a film made by Israelis for an Israeli audience, talking about the reality and responsibility that must be taken for the occupation. The address to ‘you’, direct to camera, makes explicit the shared culpability in what exists.
Now, it can be a dicey area, having a discussion about oppression with only those on the oppressing side at the table. My worry would be it would descend into that Frankie Boyle joke about the Americans and the Vietnam war – that not only will they kill your people, they’ll come back 15 years later to make a film about how killing your people made their soldiers sad. But that’s not what this is at all. The First 54 Years shines a light on the people who make occupation happen, the faceless, nameless, anonymous soldiers whose daily actions perpetuate the occupation as a reality for those who live under it. It strips them of their invisibility and makes them accountable for what actions they took and what actions they failed to take. It shows the treatment of Palestinians as not some misfortune of history, whose misery has become almost seen as natural to us now, as if it simply rains bombs over Gaza instead of water. But someone is firing those bombs, someone is shooting those people, and these atrocities don’t just happen – they are done.
The manner in which the ex-soldiers speak is very matter-of-fact. The describe a reality that was, there is very little moral grandstanding or debate. Many stories follow the same format – this was the order, this was how it was carried out. But that’s not to say that their retelling is flat. Just the opposite. In their recounting is all the weariness of numbness to brutality, the everyday indifference to the absurd you find in a warzone, and the sharp, breaking clarity when the horror of what is going on finds a way to break on you afresh.
Many of the ex-soldiers were kids who were drafted into the military. They talk about how easily they accepted the normality of what they were being trained to do, unquestioningly. That they would run drills on local villages, not because anyone in that village had done anything, but because the new recruits needed to practice how to raid a village. The soldiers from the 90s and later talk about how it was as if it was a video game, some shoot-em-up they had been put in front of. The machine gun on the hill, and how guys would come on their lunch break, and line up to take a turn, spraying the city with bullets.
And what they all seemed to convey, over and over again, was how rudderless this whole thing was. How absurd. How they would be sent to an address and told to pull the place apart, and they would not know who they were looking for or what they were looking for. There just had to be *something*. And how they would lift men out their bed in the dead of night, cuff and hood him, beat the shit out him, and transport him to the nearest base for detention, only to find out he was being held for not paying his electricity bill. The whole thing just felt so abritrary.
As the soldiers serving in the 70s give way to the more recent generations serving in the 2000s, the sheen comes off the apple almost entirely, the mask slips, and the pretence of propaganda drops. No longer is even lip service paid to idea of targeting terrorists. The nightly duty is to ‘map’ a neighbourhood, by going door-to-door at 4am, and wake up everyone inside, to photograph and map the layout of each room, and make a list of everyone sleeping under that roof. And they were told the ‘why’ for this was not that this would produce any valuable intelligence, but simply to instill in the general populace the understanding that there would not be a night where they would go undisturbed or unsearched. That quite openly, the purpose was to grind them down, and put the fear of god in them.
So what do you get, after the first 54 years? Mograbi’s end is one of pessimism, that unless Israel faces the reality of what it has done and continues to do, that the conflict will only escalate in brutality, with no expectation or even hope of peace. That Israelis and Palestinians have both come to see this as an unwinnable war, and the goal has devolved from victory over the other to simply spreading the suffering.
This is how you run a military occupation, it says, with terror, and torture, and death. How do you want to continue?