Visualising the Palestinian Struggle: Khadijeh Habashneh and the Palestine Film Unit

by Leena Habiballa

The Naksa of 1967 and the rapid expansion of the Israeli occupation during the Six Day War marked a significant turning point in the development of Palestinian cinema. The escalation in Israeli settler violence sparked an insurrection in Palestine and the rise of guerilla freedom fighters, fedayeen, as regional actors against a new mass exodus. Palestinian filmworkers exiled in the diaspora across Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, UK and elsewhere all quickly recognised the urgency and fatefulness of that moment and the need to document and support the resistance. To achieve this, Sulafa Jadalla, Hani Jawharieh, and Mustafa Abu-Ali established The Palestine Film Unit (PFU) in 1968. A new phase of the Palestinian struggle required a new cinema and a new visual language that could mobilise Palestinians and locate Palestine in the global context of anti-colonial struggles. The birth of this revolutionary, militant cinema is therefore inseparable from the birth of the Palestinian revolution and is deeply wedded to the spirit and freedom dreams that defined that movement. 

Operating in Jordan and then Lebanon under the tutelage of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the PFU made more than 90 films documenting everything from the battles of the fedayeen and Palestinian Liberation Army, the forced displacement of Palestinians, military activities and meetings, popular events of the revolution, and everyday life under occupation. Led by the conviction that the work of militant cinema would be incomplete without engaging revolutionary audiences, the PFU set out to take the cinema to its people through holding screenings in refugee camps, schools, and military bases. 

PFU’s films garnered huge audiences within and outside of Palestine, receiving recognition at various international film festivals and broadcasting Palestinian resistance to the world, attracting the attention and support of several giants of cinema including Godard, Perelli, and Wakamatsu. The importance of the image as another terrain of struggle became increasingly evident over the years. Militant Palestinian cinema was at once a disruption to Israel’s ideal self-representation, a thread of communication between Palestinians divided by the occupation’s new borders, a memorialisation of the Palestinian resistance, and a vehicle to build solidarities with anti-colonial movements all over the world. 

Palestinian Cinema Institute poster

The PFU evolved into the Palestinian Cinema Institute (PCI) in 1976, establishing a new archival and cinematheque department. Critics argued over the value of militant Palestinian cinema, questioning whether it qualified as a cinema at all or mere propaganda on behalf of the PLO. Such Western critique did not appreciate these films as instances of revolt in and of themselves, where there existed no separation between the conditions of the filmmakers and the militant expressions of life and humanity they captured. The visual language that arose in response to the revolution could not be one of artistic subtlety as that would only strengthen the occupation’s censorship which sought to conceal its crimes. Propaganda was thus regarded by the PFU not as a technology of deception but of a kind of power that could shift the narrative on and dignify a criminalised Palestinian resistance. 

Despite tensions between the PLO and the PFU that increasingly compromised filmmakers’ search for an alternative, revolutionary cinematic language, the unit continued to produce work. These activities came to a devastating end during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, leading to the destruction and looting of the archives housed in Studio Al-Sakhra, PCI’s post-production facility. The official PCI archive was moved several times in hopes of rescuing it, but the immediate existential concerns of the PLO following their defeat and the limited resources available to the PFU meant that it could not be transferred in whole. Instead, it adopted the condition of its makers, becoming fragmented and dispersed globally, with much of it lost without a trace—perhaps seized by the IDF.  

A primary custodian of the archive and a central figure of the PFU during that time was the clinical psychologist—and one of the first Palestinian women filmmakers—Khadijeh Habashneh, wife to co-founder Mustafa Abu-Ali. After volunteering for the PFU for many years, she finally joined the organisation in 1971 and lent her full efforts to the revolution, marking the beginning of a life-long dedication to the documentation and preservation of the Palestinian struggle as well as the transformation of women’s conditions under Israeli occupation. She organised with the Palestinian Women’s Union (GUPW), mobilising and politically organising displaced women in the camps, and was head of the archive and cinematheque department at the PCI. 

Khadijeh Habashneh with PCI member Samir Nimer in 1979

Habashneh’s role in restoring the films of the PCI since their disappearance is perhaps her most well-known contribution to Palestinian cinema. A journey of more than a decade that saw her live the arduous search for the representation of a pivotal era in Palestinian history, tracing its ghost across continents, has succeeded in restoring 60 films of the PFU. For Habashneh, the insistence on the recovery of one’s image was the insistence on an existence against and despite erasure. Collecting against loss and historical amnesia, this mammoth work restores the ability to transmit a culture of resistance, and to recreate memory, identity, and heritage beyond spaces of death. 

Less known is Habashneh’s extensive role during and since the revolution to foster a women’s politics and culture of social organisation capable of intervening in the material and psychic devastation of the Naksa. Though regarded as secondary to the battles of the fedayeen, the spaces and labour of women were a lifeblood of the revolution, the site where Palestinian society could socially and culturally reproduce itself and therefore the subject of constant assault by the Israelis. Israel’s systematic targeting of hospitals, schools, universities, and homes, as well as young Palestinians was and remains unarbitrary; it is a deliberate attempt at eliminating the life-making institutions—mostly operated by women—within Palestinian society. In this way, settler violence eradicates not only life, but the possibility of creating a future one, and seizes whatever remains for itself. In recognising genocidal, colonial occupation as an ongoing process that stretches before and after the violent act or event has occurred, Habashneh’s work on and off screen sought to document and transform these violated, gendered spaces of life-making. 

In a 2020 interview, Habashneh recalls that though she harboured an interest in film, she found other ways of serving the revolution before ever thinking of picking up a camera. “As a revolutionary people, we don’t do what we like, we do what is needed.” Indeed, her cinematic work was rooted in the daily concerns and problematics of the women she worked with and did not take precedence over the existential and imminent needs of her community. Her first film, Children without Childhood (1980), also known as Children Nevertheless, is a documentary short that delves into the lives of orphaned children who survived the 1976 Tel Al-Zaatar refugee camp massacre. Housed by the GUPW in Beit El-Sumood (The House of Resilience), the children lived in groups cared for by different women widening the notion of kinship to rehabilitate their sense of security and ameliorate the aftermath of their trauma. Juxtaposing the heart-wrenching realities of these Palestinian children with the UN’s International Declaration of Child Rights, Habashneh exposes the hypocrisy of international law and the moral depravity of the occupation. 

Children Without Childhood (1980)

Habashneh’s second film Women of My Country, which was in the editing phase during the 1982 Lebanon war, dealt with women’s culture of resistance and their role in the revolution. The film is thought to have been seized by the IDF during their siege on Beirut and has not been recovered since. We can only attempt to imagine what liberatory and emancipatory practices it contained and the immense value it would hold today in radically re-imagining feminist models of resistance. 

Every film produced by Habashneh and the PFU was an attempt at developing a collective cinematic language and a culture of resistance beyond the grasp of the Israeli occupation. Militant Palestinian cinema was an evolving dialogue with its revolutionary audience that could speak to the realities and aspirations of its people. Against Israel’s death machine, it sought to engage with the inventions and experiments of the revolution as they were happening and when they could speak for themselves. This work sought to seize the image as a way of seizing oneself and humanity in the present rather than be at the mercy of history’s distortions and colonial retrospective gaze. To refuse the settler colonial false promise of justice that pushes liberatory horizons further and further away. And to demand not just a break from death, but the full spectrum of life. 

Leena Habiballa is a cultural worker with an interest in visual and material cultures and community filmmaking/exhibition models. She explores these themes through art/film criticism, her own filmmaking practice, as well as research and curation. She is currently Assistant Producer at Other Cinemas and a member of the artist workers’ cooperative not/nowhere.

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