TV crack: The undercover Israeli unit in Fauda
On Television

Shakespeare in the West Bank

Adam LeBor has found one of the most immersive, and exhausting, experiences television has to offer

For some years now I have been a devotee of Krav Maga, the Israeli self-defence system. Krav Maga, which means contact combat, has no fancy flying kicks or dancing ringcraft. Instead it works on a simple three-step approach: block, counter (repeatedly), get out. So do the undercover operatives in Fauda, the Israeli television series whose third season is now showing on Netflix.

Fauda is a global hit, and with good reason. The series storylines of most television dramas surge, coast, dip, and surge again to vary the pacing of each episode. Fauda is near non-stop, full-on high tension with explosive action — including plenty of military-grade Krav Maga. The series is television crack, completely addictive. The short intervals of downtime — operational planning, tangled personal lives — merely heighten the anticipation of more violence. Fauda feels so authentic because it is grounded in the brutal reality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lior Raz, who plays Doron Kavillio, the de-facto leader of the unit, is a fluent Arabic speaker, a combat veteran of an elite undercover unit. The series’ co-creator, Avi Issacharoff, is an Israeli journalist and Middle East analyst.

Watching Fauda is one of the most immersive, and exhausting, experiences television has to offer. But the series is much more than a simple shoot-em-up. The characters are constantly in extreme danger, fighting for their lives, but their missions have high stakes: to prevent terrorist attacks and to save lives. They are fundamentally decent, but they must do bad things to succeed. Sometimes very bad. Ethics, as well as action, make Fauda such gripping viewing. 

Widely watched across the Arab world, Fauda has received a mixed reception among the 20 per cent or so of the Israeli population that are Arab Muslims or Christians. On the positive side, most of the Palestinian Arab characters are simply decent. Most want nothing more than to live their lives in peace and security and provide for their families, while navigating the endless demands of the Israeli army and authorities. Even the terrorists have shades of grey. They love their parents, their siblings and their children. They kill civilians, but for a cause. They show courage and agency.

Fauda’s Israeli writers say the answer to criticism is for Netflix to commission a series by Palestinians

Fauda shows the possibility of romance between the two nations. In season one Doron falls for a Palestinian doctor in Ramallah on the West Bank and she for him. In Britain we are used to challenging television drama that shows both sides of a highly charged story. In Israel such storylines were incendiary. 

On one level Fauda glamorises Doron and his team. But there is no glamour in the interrogation rooms of the Shabak, Israel’s internal security service. We see an Israeli female interrogator fire off her questions, while a burly man stands by the prisoner. When he does not answer to her liking she looks at the Shabak operative, and says, “Once more, please.” The prisoner is clinically punched in the groin, violently shaken, beaten again. Other prisoners are blackmailed into collaborating with the sinister, chain-smoking Captain Ayub.

There are a few clunkers. In season three, Doron, while undercover in Gaza, addresses a young woman he does not know as “habibti”, Arabic for “my love” or “darling”. Such informality, common in Israel, would not go down well even in sophisticated Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian territories. In Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist radicals of Hamas, it would trigger all sorts of alarms.

Some Palestinians have much harsher criticisms. George Zeidan, writing in Haaretz, the left-wing Israeli newspaper, described the series as a “war on truth”, where every Israeli operative is moral, personally principled and taking every measure to avoid civilian casualties. The civilian death toll in the 2014 Gaza war, when hundreds of women and children were killed by Israeli forces, points to a different reality, argues Zeidan.

Raz and Issacharoff are sensitive to such critiques. Their response is that they do as much as they can to include rounded, complex Palestinian characters. But ultimately they are Israelis who write from an Israeli perspective. The answer, they say, and they are right, is for Netflix to commission a series by Palestinian writers.

In season three, Doron is living undercover in a village near Hebron in the Palestinian territories, working as a coach for Bashar, a young boxer. Doron, or Abu Fadi as he is known, is fully accepted by Bashar’s family. Bashar completely believes in him. They talk of future matches in Amman, an international career. Doron’s betrayal, when it comes, is total. The terrible consequences for Bashar’s family, and the extent of their loss, are vividly portrayed.

As drama Fauda remains superb. The characters on both sides, and their interplay between them are ever more complex and engrossing. The trail of death and destruction that Doron leaves in his wake, even as he tries to do good and act as ethically as he can, makes him a character of Shakespearean depth and complexity.

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