While Richard Gere was in Israel and the occupied West Bank promoting his film “Norman,” he was recorded in an unguarded moment wandering the desolate streets of Hebron’s Old City. A dumbfounded Gere is near at a loss for words in the clip, which aired on Israel’s Channel 2 network.
Not a Palestinian in sight. Soldiers and settlers roam comparatively carefree. The roads are too quiet. All of the shops are shuttered. Gere is stunned:
“This is the thing that’s flipping me out right now,” Gere stammers to his Hebron guides, activists with the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence, former soldiers that now advocate against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territory, “Of everything we’ve seen for two days, the people we’ve talked to, it’s…I mean…I’m…I’m touched by that, I know that story. But this is really bizarre.”
“This is genuinely strange,” Gere adds, before telling his guides, Hebron is like the Jim Crow South:
“It’s the dead city, but who owns the city? And their [the settlers] feeling of ‘I’m protected, I can do whatever I want,’ and that sense of where the boundaries are. I mean it’s like…it’s exactly like what the what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go, they could drink from that fountain, they couldn’t go over there, they couldn’t eat in that place. It was well understood. You didn’t cross it or you’d get your head beat in or lynched,” Gere said.
At one point soldiers stopped Gere and asked for his passport. He didn’t have it on him. But he’s from New York, he told them. Once the soldiers realized he is the Richard Gere–“Richard Gere, wow,” one said–the mood softens. But Gere is still visibly unsettled.
A car driven by a settler zooms by. Gere catches on, “These guys driving through. It’s a really dark energy. Wow,” he says, “it was kind of Mad Max.”
The scene that Gere had entered for the first time includes Palestinians who are made to use alleyways as the main roads are for settlers only. Palestinians cannot drive in the Old City, settlers can. There is one notorious sidewalk with a rope to segregate Palestinian and Israeli pedestrian traffic. It’s a scene many are horrified by the first time they enter. Philip Weiss had a similar response back in 2006:
“Every now and then in life, and maybe just when you want it, god throws down a thunderbolt. It happened to me on Friday in Hebron, in the Occupied Territories. A group of seven Israelis and I were sitting in an Arab man’s house, discussing the harassment and denial of movement to Palestinians in the center of that city—the second largest city in the West Bank—when I wondered for the 100th or thousandth time how the conditions I was seeing for myself in the occupation compared to apartheid in South Africa, which Americans rose up against 20 years ago.”
Before Gere went to Hebron, he spoke with Haaretz in Jerusalem:
“Obviously this occupation is destroying everyone,” he says. “There’s no defense of this occupation. Settlements are such an absurd provocation and, certainly in the international sense, completely illegal – and they are certainly not part of the program of someone who wants a genuine peace process.” He pauses before adding, “Just to be clear about this: I denounce violence on all sides of this. And, of course, Israelis should feel secure. But Palestinians should not feel desperate.”
Later that same trip Gere met with Palestinian former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. Following the meeting Gere was asked if he would ever act in a production by a Palestinian filmmaker (“Norman” writer and director, Joseph Cedar, is Israeli). “Why not,” Gere told the Arab News, continuing:
“My only criteria are the quality of the script and the production. Naturally I’d have to be emotionally connected, but that isn’t enough. It has to be a quality film. I won’t discriminate if it’s a Palestinian film. In fact, I’d look closer if it was a Palestinian director.”
Gere added, “I have a special place in my heart for Palestinians, and I have a special empathy for their suffering.”
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