Fauda is Back—With a Vengeance
The acclaimed Israeli terrorism drama has won a following in the Arab world, too, for its empathetic portrayal of Palestinians
I’VE JUST FINISHED WATCHING the fourth season of the Israeli series Fauda, now streaming on Netflix. Like the previous three seasons, the show remains a taut, gritty thriller that follows the Israeli army’s crack Duvdevan (Hebrew for “cherry”) unit as its members go undercover, posing as Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, to capture or kill terrorist leaders and foil their murderous plots.
In this season, the action moves overseas after a Palestinian informant lures his Israeli handler to Brussels and then kidnaps him. The informant, it turns out, is a double agent for Iran-backed Hezbollah, which is planning a spectacular rocket attack on Israel’s heartland. As the season progresses, the story takes its characters from Brussels to Syria and Lebanon as the Israeli unit attempts to locate and free their beloved comrade-in-arms. Those attempts also draw in the informant’s sister, an Israeli Arab working for the Israeli police.
To avoid any spoilers for those who haven’t started or finished Season 4 yet, I’ll leave it there.
But as a former Middle East correspondent who spent 20 years witnessing the Israel-Palestinian conflict up close, I can say this: Fauda presents the most realistic, nuanced and broadly empathetic portrayal of that communal war that I’ve ever seen on screen. And I’ve seen just about all of them, starting from Otto Preminger’s 1960 film “Exodus,” based on the unabashedly pro-Israel novel by Leon Uris, to Stephen Speilberg’s 2005 film “Munich,” which recounts the Mossad’s campaign of assassinations in retribution for the PLO’s murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Fauda is the Arabic word for “chaos,” the state of affairs that has existed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2000, when the fundamentalist Islamic terror group Hamas launched a wave of suicide bombings that torpedoed fledgling peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians. Fauda is also the code word that undercover Israeli forces use when they’ve been exposed and need to be extracted before a Palestinian mob kills them. Fauda’s characters refer to their unit only as “mista’aravim,” the generic name that Israeli security officials give to all undercover counter-terrorism outfits and which means “those who live among the Arabs.”
What makes this Fauda such a compelling drama is its high level of realism. To its credit, Fauda shuns all the hackneyed plot lines and stereotypical characters that have marked such dramas about Israel, as well as such popular counter-terrorist dramas like 24 and the Jack Ryan series.
Created by Avi Isaacharoff and Lior Raz, both veterans of the Duvdevan special forces unit, Fauda draws from their real-life-and-death experiences as soldiers operating undercover in the Palestinian territories.
As the children of Jewish immigrants from Arab countries, both Issacharoff and Raz speak Arabic and Hebrew fluently, and the verisimilitude of the show is bolstered by having its characters speak in those languages, rather than in English with Palestinian or Israeli accents (Netflix provides English subtitles).
Isaacharoff, who later covered the West Bank and Gaza Strip as the Arab affairs correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, also brings to the series his first-hand knowledge of the political tensions, feuds and betrayals that have marked relations between the West Bank’s secular Palestinian Authority and Gaza’s Islamist Hamas rulers. Issacharoff and Raz also provide unvarnished portrayals of how the Arabic-speaking Jewish officers of Israel’s Shin Bet internal intelligence agency exploit their targets’ personal vulnerabilities to turn Palestinian detainees into informants against their own people, as well as the threats they use to keep the informants in line.
To be sure, Fauda includes rope-taut action scenes that depict Israeli commando raids on Palestinian terror cells. But the series shows that Israeli undercover operations can be messy, with unintended collateral damage killing innocent children and women. Fauda also doesn’t shy away from showing the steep psychological price its Israeli characters pay for the fraught lives they live, from the PTSD of the Duvdevan soldiers to the divorces from their spouses who can no longer tolerate the tensions of a life where, at any moment, they can be widowed and their children left without a parent.
Fauda’s main character again this season is the Duvdevan commander Doron Kavillio, moodily played by Raz, who actually served 23 years in the unit. Doron is a dedicated, brave and highly-trained member of the counter-terrorism unit who can dispatch his foes with a gun, knife or his bare hands. But his marriage and personal life are in shambles. He’s an angry, violent character, his volcanic temper and scowl the outward signs of the emotional scars he carries from seeing too much death and suffering in Israel’s endless blood feud with the Palestinians. Doron is more anti-hero than hero, a portrayal that most Israelis—or knowing observers of the endless conflict—would recognize as authentic.
Isssacharoff and Raz also eschew the dramatic dictum that says the more evil the villain, the better the drama. Instead, they humanize their Palestinian characters. The Hamas militants who plot bomb attacks inside Israel are not presented as blood-thirsty Jew haters but as dedicated warriors for the cause of an Islamic Palestinian state—just as Israel’s pre-state Irgun and Stern Gang militants employed terrorism to create a Jewish state. And just as in real life, the parents of the Palestinian militants are torn between family loyalty and concern for the lives of their children.
Nor does the series shy away from showing the casual indignities and deliberate cruelties that Israel’s military occupation imposes on West Bank Palestinians, from the insulting inspections that they suffer at army checkpoints to the collective punishments of entire families whose homes are demolished if one member is convicted of a terrorist offense.
It is this added human dimension that gives the series its enormous appeal to both Israeli and Arab audiences, who see reflections of their own lives in Fauda’s plot lines. The show has garnered numerous awards in Israel, where Issacharoff says rightwing figures have told him they love the show for its depiction of successful operations against Palestinian terrorists. But he added that many rightwing viewers also have told him they also feel discomfited and confused by the empathy they find themselves feeling for ordinary Palestinians.
Fauda is also widely watched across the Arab world. In Lebanon, home to Hezbollah, it’s been ranked the most popular show on television for several years running, according to Netflix. Even members of Hamas, who are pledged to Israel's destruction as a Jewish state, love the show, a surprised Issacaroff says. Speaking to an audience in Washington recently, he told of visiting an Israeli prison where jailed Hamas leaders told him that while they can’t say so publicly, they never missed an episode. Issacharoff added that while the official Hamas website castigates Fauda as “Zionist propaganda” and urges Palestinians not to watch it, at the end of the article, there’s a link to the show.
Many details in Fauda echo my own experiences as I learned how chaotic moments of Israeli-Palestinian violence can be. In 1985, as I was working in my office in downtown Jerusalem, two Palestinians stepped out of a nearby clothing store on Jaffa Road and opened fire on bystanders with pistols. Rushing down to the street, I saw several Israeli men armed with pistols draw their weapons, but they held their fire, unable to distinguish between the terrorists and their fellow countrymen because, as they later told police, everyone looked the same. In the end, it was an Israeli martial arts expert who finally subdued the terrorists.
The following year, Meron Benvenisti, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, whose ancestors had been living in the city since the 1400s and who resided on a mixed Jewish-Arab street, told me about a young Palestinian neighbor who had received a 20-year prison sentence for planting a bomb in the garden of a house next door. After only a few years, however, Israeli authorities released the Palestinian in a prisoner exchange, allowing him to return to the neighborhood, where he soon announced he would marry a distant cousin. In a gesture of traditional Arab hospitality, the former prisoner’s father invited all the neighbors to the wedding, including Meron. But just before he entered the Palestinian’s house, Meron told me how he paused at the door to reflect on the cognitive dissonance he was experiencing. “The father is my neighbor,” he told himself. “My family has known his family for generations. His son is also my neighbor. But he’s my enemy, too. And not just any enemy. He’s a mortal enemy.”
I was reminded of that story recently when I learned that the girlfriend of Fauda co-creator Lior Raz had been stabbed to death by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem while Raz was still serving in the Duvdevan unit. The attacker was caught, convicted, sent to prison, but just a few years later he also was released in another prisoner exchange and planned to marry. In a bizarre twist that underscored how personal the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be, the murderer’s bride turned out to be not only the daughter of a top Hamas leader but also the sister of Musab Hassan Yousef, one of the Shin Bet’s most valuable Palestinian informants. Known as “the Green Prince,” Yousef was legendary among Raz and other members of the Duvdevan unit for providing the intelligence that enabled many of their undercover operations.
Back in 2015, when Netflix hosted the Los Angeles premier of Fauda’s first season, Raz actually met Yousef, the trusted informant yet brother-in-law of his girlfriend’s murderer, for the first time.
“We couldn’t speak,” Raz recalls. “We could only hug, and that was it.” The first season was dedicated to Raz’s slain girlfriend.
Now that the fourth season of Fauda has aired, it’s unclear if there will be a fifth. Both Raz and Issacharoff say they are now involved in other dramatic projects. But one thing is sadly clear: the bloody conflict that has provided the basis for the series is heating up yet again. Late last month, Israeli soldiers killed nine Palestinian militants during a raid on a refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin. A few hours later, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israeli worshippers outside a Jerusalem synagogue. Last week, a Palestinian deliberately rammed his car into a crowd of Israelis in East Jerusalem, killing two, including a child.
So far this year, Palestinian terror attacks have killed nine Israelis while Israeli security forces have killed 43 West Bank Palestinians, including attackers, militants and civilians, according to an Agence Press France tally based on official statements. With Israel's new ultra-rightwing government building more Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and no peace on the horizon, the casualty count on both sides will grow.
Alas, if Issacharoff and Raz need new material for another season, they’ll need only to turn on their TVs.