I’ve always been a big fan of the Marvel comic book series. I started reading comics when I was 8 years old, sometimes in English clubs at school or at Qattan Center for the Child, an educational institution in Gaza that contains a large library for children up to the age of 15.
I’ve grown accustomed to enjoying the events described in some of the comics, sometimes reading alongside my sister or brother. My sister and I would even act out some of scenes in the stories for our siblings during Gaza bombings as we hid in the living room – me and my five siblings with our parents. We used to convince ourselves that the living room was the safest place in the house, even though all of the places in our house – and all of Gaza City – were dangerous. Still, acting out Marvel stories helped to entertain our family, and calm their fears, during bombings.
So you can imagine how surprised I was when I was browsing the internet one day recently and read about Marvel’s plans to introduce an Israeli superhero called Sabra. She will be played by the Israeli actress Shira Haas.
A comic book superhero called Sabra was actually created by the American writer Bill Mantlo and the American artist Sal Buscema in 1980 — more than 40 years ago, and two years before the Sabra and Shatila massacre in which an Israeli-backed Christian militia killed as many as 3,500 mostly Palestinians and Lebanese civilians in a neighborhood and refugee camp in Beirut.
Could someone really be making a big Hollywood movie with a well-known Israeli actress playing a character with the same name as a horrible and tragic event in Palestinian history? Sabra the character won’t represent Palestinian suffering. But the real Sabra did. People were killed in the ugliest way, others were displaced, and survivors live with a pain that didn’t end even when the killings did.
Not only is that history terrible, but as a Palestinian living under the occupation, I can testify to the continuing horror. I have seen Israeli soldiers harrass people, seen people killed in bombings, seen how people’s spirits are crushed day after day as their personal liberty is restricted. The occupation is like a person who puts a knife against your neck but then tells people, “I didn’t hurt him. He can do what he wants. I didn’t prevent him at all.”
Outside the Marvel universe, the word “sabra” connotes something positive and real. In Hebrew it means prickly pear. It is related to the Arabic word “saba,” which means patience and perseverance. Palestinians do see the fruit as a metaphor for resilience.
But the superhero Sabra’s story arc doesn’t depict Palestinians as a strong, resilient people. It depicts them as terrorists or traitors. Sabra’s other identity is a Mossad agent called Ruth Bat-Seraph, who bribes Palestinians to deliver weapons to be used by Israelis against their own people.
Consider also that in the Incredible Hulk issue that first introduced Sabra, the dialogue between her and the Hulk was about sharing the land. But Israel occupies 85% of historic Palestine, and today it also controls more than 60% of the West Bank and continues to push settlements that the European Union, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and others have deemed illegal and in violation of international human rights.
Even without Sabra’s help, Israel has a history of burying Palestine’s culture, customs, and traditions and passing them off as its own. It controls Palestinian archaeological sites. It takes credit for qualities seen in traditional Palestinian garments. It attributes breakfast foods like falafel, hummus, and manakeesh to its own folk cuisine when they are rooted in Palestinian and Arabic history. It tries to control the educational curricula for Palestinian students from the occupied territories to shape what they learn and how they think.
Even social media is controlled, including by deleting tweets, posts and other ways Palestinians communicate and get news. When not everyone can access Arabic-language news broadcasts such as Al-Jazeera, social media becomes a very important way for Palestinians to exchange information, tell the outside world what is happening under the occupation, and support one another.
With Israeli already trying to repress Palestinian identity and communication, I’m even more worried about the impact of a big Marvel movie about an Israeli superhero agent. A comic book is one thing, but a major Hollywood movie could have a much bigger effect. Could Sabra dilute reality so much that some people will even wonder if a massacre in a neighborhood with the same name even took place?
I once wrote an essay for WANN, Palestinian Poet Inspired by Grief, about Rehab Kana’an, a woman who lost 51 members of her family in a massacre in Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, similar to the massacres that occurred at Sabra and Shatila. I see her story as a tragedy whose trauma and losses have been turned into a movie starring a famous Israeli actor.
But even if some moviegoers get a wrong impression of Palestinians, our life under the occupation, and the role of the Israeli occupiers, I know that a few movie caricatures and fictional events won’t – can’t – change the truth. We suffer because of the Israeli occupation. We are deprived of our rights to be treated fairly, get a good education, to travel, and so much more, because of the Israeli occupation. And the worst of what’s occurred can be recalled in a place called Sabra.