My Dinner with West Bank Hamas

From the “Holy Land” cutting room floor: Hamed al-Beitawi, Hamas Legislator from Nablus.

Also from the “Holy Land” Hamas files: Ahmed Attoun, East Jerusalem Islamist in exile.


Telling the Stories of West Bank Hamas

It worked well as a tag line: “Three Palestinians. Three Israelis. One Year in the West Bank.” It obeyed the rule of threes, and it had symmetry. And the idea of dividing Palestinians and Israelis into corresponding categories of right, left and center seemed like a worthy organizing principal for a documentary.

So when I set out to make “Holy Land” in fall, 2011 the first job was to find film subjects in the West Bank who would reflect this ideological triad. It wasn’t too hard on the Israeli side: Israeli rightists, leftists and centrists are as easy to find in the West Bank as a plate of hummus.

On the Palestinian side, defining the ideological spectrum is trickier. First off, differentiating Palestinian ideology is complicaed by the fact that there is a common enemy. I never ran into any Palestinians in the West Bank who (publicly) identified as pro-Irael, pro-occupation.

Our concept was to define the spectrum as ranging from secular to religious. And we found three compelling characters to represent that cross section. The first subject we settled on was Nasri Sabarna, the secular/progressive mayor of the town of Bet Ommar (also known as Beit Ummar). Sabarna actively pursues contacts with Israeli, European and US peace activists — a risky choice in an era when many Palestinians oppose these contacts as “normalization.”

We found our second Palestinian subject in Nabi Saleh, a village outside Ramallah that has become an active West Bank flashpoint, known for its weekly demonstrations. Mohammad Tamimi is a young leader of those demonstrations and is the town’s major presence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social networks.

For our third subject, we wanted to find a member of Hamas in the West Bank. HAMAS??? Yes, Hamas. Those guys. Me, a wannabe gonzo foreign correspondent. I’m ashamed to admit that I had never filmed or reported on a terrorist or an alleged terrorist, or shared a cup of tea with one. Contemplating a year with on and off, up close, intimate contact with a member of Hamas struck me as a bit insane, but it was the right thing to do. Fortunately, I was working with a brilliant Palestinian associate producer who helped guide the search process.

Ask All Your Questions the First Time – It Might Be Your Last

I remember our first shoot with Hamas. It was in Bethlehem, January, 2012. The potential subject was Sheikh Kahled Tafesh. Tafesh had been elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in 2006. Those were the Palestinian elections that Hamas won, both in Gaza and the West Bank. The electoral victory contributed to the vicious split between Fatah and Hamas and the bloody Hamas takeover in Gaza. Most of the Hamas parliamentarians in the West Bank were then arrested by the Israelis (or the Palestinian Authority), and the legislative council was disbanded. No national elections have been held since.

Tafesh had also allegedly been the head of Hamas political and military operations in Bethlehem ( On the day I went to meet Tafesh, I had my wife and then 18-month-old son with me. I told them to wait in the parking lot or walk up and down the street with the stroller while we filmed Tafesh.

It was a perfectly OK interview — excerpts are on YouTube. But Tafesh was not destined to be one of our main characters. He was arrested that night, and as far as I know, has been in prison ever since.

Further investigation led us to another Hamas Sheikh, this time in Nablus, a beautiful city to the north. Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi had been a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank (Hamas is considered to be an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is best known as the leading Islamist force in Egypt). I was home in New York when our producer and cinematographer filmed Beitawi at his home. I downloaded the footage and watched: a gentle, grandfatherly old man invites us into his home, introduces us to his 100 year old mother, walks up to his garden, and expounds on Hamas ideology while grandchildren laugh and play in the background. Beitawi was hard core Hamas. He was in a lifelong struggle not only against the Israelis, but against Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Someone (probably from Fatah) attempted to assassinate him. He was a preacher in Al Aqsa mosque. He had spent many years in jail, and in exile in Lebanon. He was also the top Nablus vote getter in the 2006 parliamentary elections — the parliament that never met.

The next Beitawi scene I watched via remote download was Beitawi sick and in the hospital. He had diabetes for many years. Now a serious heart condition. He was surrounded by kind doctors, sympathetic nurses, and a loving wife. One of the best shots we had so far was a closeup of his wife peeling lemons, with the Al Aqsa visible out the window in the distance. A few days later, Beitawi died. His funeral in Al Aqsa was on Youtube.

Ramallah Exile Blues

Even was we had started to film Beitawi, we met Ahmed Attoun, an East Jerusalem Islamist who had been elected to the parliament. Attoun came from East Jerusalem. He emphatically denied being a member of Hamas, and we agreed not to identify him as such. It should be pointed out, however, that the Israelis consider him to be a member of Hamas and that the US government has him on a terrorism sanctions list because of his alleged Hamas connections. Attoun had spent a good bit of time in the Israeli prison system. He was released for a time in 2010 — but as word of his imminent rearrest circulated, Attoun and two Hamas-affiliated parliamentarians ran to the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in East Jerusalem to seek refuge. There they stayed for the next year and a half.

Then there was a car accident outside the ICRC. Attoun ran out to help the victims. It was the Shin Bet. Attoun was arrested, and shortly thereafter, exiled to Ramallah. We filmed Attoun in his office, at home, going to demonstrations, with his wife and children, and standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, talking about home.

We filmed Attoun maybe six times. We created some compelling scenes, a man in exile. But as we finished up our rough cut, it became apparent that a film with six or more main subjects was almost impossible to realize. That is unless we wanted to make a two hour movie that faced a grim future at the hands of the programmers who have life or death power over the films that make it or die on the film festival circuit.

Attoun was arrrested in Feb. 2013 in a sweep of “senior Hamas figures.” As one source told the Jerusalem Post: “It’s part of the ‘lawn mowing’ that is required to stop Hamas from converting street popularity and its motivation into organizational achievements.”

Perhaps it was an act of cowardice, but Hamas didn’t make it into the final version of the film. Even as I write, our Facebook page identifies the film as “Three Palestinians. Three Israelis. A Year in the West Bank.” (If anyone knows Mark Zuckerberg, please ask him to change the tag line!).

I still wonder if chopping Hamas from “Holy Land” was the right decision. I’m bothered a lot that in a way it was a forced decision. Our first subject was arrested. What if he had remained free? What would have unfolded in the next year?

Today war rages in Gaza. Hamas has come back to center stage. And the best I can do is upload our Hamas stories to YouTube. I hope someone out there finds them illuminating.