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14 October 2023

The lessons of Algiers

Understanding Hamas’s attack as a barbarous act outside of history won’t help Israel in Gaza.

By Oliver Eagleton

The sudden outbreak of guerilla warfare; the merciless bombing of an open-air prison; the confinement of its residents behind barbed-wire fences; the routine humiliations – frisking, interrogation, arbitrary detention – to which they are subjected by their captors. Many of the scenes from Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers (1966) – which depicts the anti-colonial struggle of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) during the mid-1950s and the backlash by French paratroopers – are being played out in Palestine today.

Yet rewatching the film, as Israel prepares to level the Gaza Strip after Hamas’s bloody assault last weekend, reveals an important distinction. Colonel Mathieu, the commander of the campaign to eradicate the Algerian rebel leaders, speaks plainly about the causes of the conflict. “The problem is this: the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay.” The circumstances, he says, resemble those of Indochina: an occupying force vs an insurrectionary one, each with a structural interest in overpowering the other. This diagnosis allows Mathieu to display a basic respect for his rivals. He recognises that the revolutionary leader Larbi Ben M’hidi has a coherent political perspective, though he still has no compunction about killing him.

Contrast this with the discourse of the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who states that “we are fighting against human animals and we are acting accordingly”. Or with the widespread portrayal of Hamas as nothing more than bloodthirsty “terrorists” or “beasts” who launched an entirely “unprovoked attack” on their neighbour. The difference is telling. Mathieu, based on the real-life general, Marcel Bigeard, makes no bones about his place in history: an occupier of Arab land and subjugator of its indigenous population. The Israeli government, meanwhile, represses any acknowledgement of this role. It rejects the relevant analogies that could be used to describe its actions – colonialism, apartheid – and instead presents the ongoing war in abstract moral terms: “This is civilisation against barbarity,” Israel’s ambassador to Germany said. “This is good against bad.” It thereby retreats from reality into metaphysics.

[See also: This is no time for politics, says Israeli hostages’ daughter]

The artistry of The Battle of Algiers lies in its refusal to permit this kind of decontextualisation, to which much of the Western media has now succumbed. No effort is made to prettify the tactics of the FLN. We see them dispatch three women to the affluent French quarter of the city carrying shopping baskets filled with explosives, bound for the airport, a café and a milk bar. In each place, the camera focuses on those who are about to die: couples dancing, a child eating an ice cream. It does not shrink from the unfolding horror. But nor does it deny its origins: the condition of the Casbah, just a stone’s throw away, where the native Algerians live tightly packed, deprived of basic services or proper employment, ruled over by a despotic military regime. As the baskets are deposited, we hear a relentless, propulsive rhythm – like galloping horses, or a locomotive careering along a track. This is the sound of history. It is the force, emanating from an intolerable situation, that drives the women to act.  

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Yet if Pontecorvo’s film stages a conflict that is acutely aware of its historical stakes, it also captures a certain lack of awareness on the part of the colonisers. The French suffer from a basic ignorance of their subjects. Having turned the Arab population into a racialised Other, they find they cannot understand them well enough to govern them. Despite checking papers, searching houses, imposing curfews and using informants, no amount of regulation or surveillance is sufficient to penetrate into their psyches, which is where resistance germinates. At several points we see the Algerians as the Europeans see them: through the lenses of binoculars, in police photographs and videos. The flatness of this perspective makes for a sharp contrast with the depth of their political will.

Still more oblivious is the military’s assumption that anti-colonialism is merely a “tapeworm” that will perish the moment its head – the FLN leadership – is removed. By the end of the film, the French have exterminated every prominent rebel, yet they are caught unawares by the popular uprising that erupts in 1960, flooding the streets with more protesters than the army can massacre, and winning independence two years later. When the film’s protagonists are killed off, the masses take their place – and bring the narrative to its conclusion.  

Now, as Israel amasses troops for a ground invasion of Gaza, it is likely to encounter similar problems: not only the difficulty of gathering accurate intelligence or locating militant hideouts, but the ineluctable reality that continual occupation elicits continual resistance – and that wiping out one opposition group will pave the way for others. There is considerable disagreement about whether Hamas’s attack will prove counterproductive for the Palestinian cause. Yet one of its consequences is clear: as the writer Tareq Baconi observes, “The fantasy that Israel could ever maintain its security by keeping Palestinians siloed interminably has come undone.” This is a fact that the rhetoric of “civilisation against barbarity” tries, vainly, to obscure. Israel banned The Battle of Algiers from public screening upon its release. But its historical lessons cannot so easily be ignored.

[See also: The revenge of history]

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