January 19, 2020

‘Fauda’ dares to depict personal side of Arab-Israeli conflict

In the hit Israeli TV series “Fauda,” Doron is a retired commander of the Mista’arvim, an elite undercover unit whose operatives pose as Arabs to tackle covert military missions in Gaza and on the West Bank.

Doron is working as a vineyard farmer and immersed in a troubled marriage when a former colleague sends an unexpected message: the Hamas terrorist Doron thought he had assassinated, Abu Ahmed, aka “The Panther,” actually faked his death and was alive and in hiding. Doron agrees to return to work in order to find and kill the elusive Ahmed.

Season One of “Fauda,” now streaming on Netflix, follows Doron and his colleagues as they struggle to hunt down The Panther. The show is titled “Fauda,” which means “chaos” in Arabic, partly after a code word the Mista’arvim used to signal that their
cover had been blown and they needed to abort an operation.

The series is unprecedented on Israeli television for its nuanced portrayal of terrorists as husbands and fathers as well as adversaries. There are no stereotypical depictions on the show. Soldiers on both sides of the conflict are shown as complex individuals. And the show’s creators, Avi Issacharoff and Lior Raz — who also plays Doron — defer passing judgment on any of their characters.

Adding a sense of reality, all of the Palestinian characters are portrayed by Arabic actors and more than half of the dialogue is in Arabic (with English subtitles on the Netflix version).  

“Nobody in Israel was talking about real Palestinians on television,” Issacharoff said of the show’s impetus during a recent interview alongside Raz at a Westwood café. “We would hear about the conflict on the news, all day, every day. But you didn’t see any kind of drama that showed the other side from the inside.”

For their efforts, the drama’s creators have earned kudos from both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as six Ophir Awards (the Israeli version of the Oscars and the Emmys). The show is considered one of the most popular ever on Israeli TV and it’s the first Israeli program to be picked up as a Netflix Original Series. Netflix has also procured “Fauda’s” second season, which is now in the works, along with a possible American version of the show.

The creators of “Fauda” are Lior Raz (left) and Avi Issacharoff. 

As such, “Fauda” is part of a continuing trend of Israeli shows that have been exported or redone for audiences in the United States. “Be’Tipul,” for example, was adapted into the acclaimed HBO psychotherapy drama “In Treatment,” while “Prisoners of War” became Showtime’s lauded spy thriller “Homeland.”

If “Fauda” seems authentic, it’s because its creators drew on their own experiences to create it. Issacharoff, 43, was an esteemed journalist who for years covered the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Ha’aretz; he was the reporter who broke the startling story of Mosab Hassan Yousef, who was the son of a Hamas founder but who became a spy for the Shin Bet in the late 1990s and 2000s. Over the years, Issacharoff has interviewed terrorists from such groups as Hamas and al-Qaida as well as members of the Mista’arvim. When he was once attacked by an angry mob that had discovered he was Israeli, two Palestinian security guards dove into the fray to save him.

Raz’s memories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are even more personal. During his army service, he was a member of a unit similar to the one in which his character, Doron, serves. Raz declined to discuss details of his top-secret missions, but he did talk about a tragic real-life incident that inspired one episode of “Fauda.”

Back in 1990, his first love and longtime girlfriend, Iris Azulai, 19, was stabbed to death by a Hamas terrorist in front of her home during an infamous attack in the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem. Her murderer was one of the Palestinians who later were released from prison in a deal negotiated for the return of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Performing opposite an actress who was essentially playing his dead girlfriend was “very difficult,” said Raz, 45, who is now married with three children. “But at the same time it was a healing process for me. And because we dedicated that episode to Iris, hundreds of thousands of people have looked on Google to see who she was.  That was very meaningful.”

Also therapeutic for Raz was the chance to write scenes based on the post-traumatic stress disorder he endured for years after his army service. “I had been very tense all the time,” he recalled. When the former soldier once heard a fireworks display, he assumed it was gunfire. “So I went to the car and I got out my gun; it was crazy,” he said. “Just the fact that now I am sitting here in this restaurant with my back to the door is a sign that I’ve really healed.”

Raz and Issacharoff knew each other as children while growing up in Jerusalem. But it was a chance meeting years later on the West Bank that led them to create “Fauda.” At the time, both were surprised to learn that each had envisioned producing a show revolving around members of the Mista’arvim.

“We heard in the news all the time about [these units], but nobody knew what was their work, how they felt about it and what price they paid for what they were doing,” Raz said.

In the series, both Israeli and Palestinian combatants are shown to be “addicted to adrenaline, and always tense, on the edge,” he said. Referring to the Mista’arvim, Raz added: “At the end of the day, they like being there, and they cannot live without it.”

One of many inspirations for the character of The Panther was the real-life terrorist Ibrahim Hamed, who was convicted of murdering dozens of Israelis in the 2000s.  Hamed evaded arrest until 2006, when he began serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prison. While in hiding, Hamed remained in touch with his wife and wrote love letters to her, Issacharoff said.  In “Fauda,” the fictional Panther has a similar connection to his own wife.

The series was shot on location in the Israeli-Arab town of Kfar Qasem during the war in Gaza in 2014. While the crews of the American TV series “Tyrant” and “Dig” left to film elsewhere, the “Fauda” team remained to finish their production.

“We were quite scared in the beginning, because the war was starting and we didn’t know how the [townspeople] would accept us,” Issacharoff said. “But the mayor asked us to come and not to be afraid.”

“We were there for at least six weeks and the hospitality was amazing,” Raz added.  “It was Arabs, Jews and Israelis all together to create [our] dream.  We were in a bubble of creativity, love and peace during the war.”