Some stories have a unique ability to capture the imagination. The tale of 18 cows in the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour is one such story. During the Intifada of the 1980s, the decision to produce milk independently soon became synonymous with collective resistance to the occupation. The cows became so significant to the Palestinians that they were declared a “threat to the security of the state of Israel” and were ordered to be killed. Attempts to hide the cows led to a prolonged search by the Israeli army involving hundreds of soldiers and two helicopters.

The Wanted 18 is a film that tells the story of these cows. It is the brainchild of Palestinian filmmaker Amer Shomali, who first heard about the cows through a comic book story, and Canadian director Paul Cowan. A truly imaginative piece of work, the film combines real footage and interviews with cartoon drawings and stop-motion effects, akin to early Aardman animation.

The Wanted 18 is about the fundamental human right to produce our own food. As local doctor Majed Nassar says in the film, “We deserve to have a home, we deserve to have our land, we deserve to have our freedom – and we deserve to have cows.” Many films are now emerging from Palestine, and they have become one of the main ways for Palestinians to express themselves and communicate with the outside world. The Palestinian filmmaker and poet, Annemarie Jacir, says, “When working under intense restrictions such as occupation, you need to find creative responses. This creativity is perhaps one of the hallmarks of Palestinian cinema right now.”

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So what actually happened in Beit Sahour? And why were these cows labelled a security threat? At that time all of the community’s food was coming from Israel. As part of resistance to the occupation, the Agricultural Neighbourhood Committee in Beit Sahour decided to produce their own milk, and bought 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz. “The moment I saw the cows at our farm I felt we had started to realise our dream of freedom and independence,” Jalal Oumsieh, a school teacher who bought the cows, says in the film. There were several glitches along the way, not least the fact that none of them had any experience with cows. “We didn’t know what to do, we were astonished!” says Jalal, recalling their attempts to herd the cows from the trailer to their barn.

Eventually, however, they got to grips with milking and were able to deliver milk to the community. The cows became a central feature of the community and the farm became a focal point and picnic place with ‘victory’ gardens, chickens and rabbits. As local farmer Naji Musleh says, “We succeeded in having a movement towards national self-sufficiency. Every person who owned a piece of land, no matter how big or how small, started growing tomatoes and beans.” Elias Rishmawi, a local pharmacist, remembers that, “The whole society was in total harmony.”

But it did not last. There was fear in Israel that this level of community organisation and resistance could spread. One day the Israeli military turned up and said the cows must be gone within 24 hours or the farm would be bulldozed. The community hid the cows, which led to a military search for the ‘18 terrorists’. Those hiding the animals were afraid of the soldiers, but they saw it as a matter of national interest and their duty to keep the cows hidden. Throughout the 12-day curfew imposed on the town, the ‘Intifada’ milk was delivered in secret. This was very important, according to doctor Majed Nassar, not just as a source of food but because, “The notion that these cows were able to produce milk during the curfew and this milk was distributed among the people, gave the people a very strong sense of what they were doing.”

The story of the 18 cows ended with the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993 – an agreement between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which many Palestinians saw as a betrayal by their leadership. Filmmaker Amer Shomali believes the agreement made it even harder for Palestinians to be self-sufficient. Speaking to the Sustainable Food Trust he said, “Do you know that, according to the agreements signed, we are not allowed to import seeds?! We are doomed to be consumers and not producers… and slaves for ever.” But, despite this, Shomali also sees great hope through the story of the Beit Sahour cows. One of the reasons he created the film was to relive the pride and dignity felt by everyone during that time, and “to be reminded that they can do it again, that it almost worked 25 years ago and it can work this time. In the end, what the film gave me and others is hope.”

This strong community spirit spurred on by agricultural independence and self-sufficiency is very much still alive in Palestine today. I recently attended a talk given by Mohammad Irsheid, a Palestinian farmer, and Taysir Arbasi, the Palestinian director of Zaytoun, a cooperative selling Palestinian products. They spoke about the hardships suffered under occupation, particularly the loss of land to illegal settlements. But they also spoke about the rise in farm cooperatives and the Palestine Fair Trade Association, which now has 1,700 farmers. Of these members, 1,200 are certified organic.

One of the aims of such cooperatives is to support the resilience of farmers under occupation. Arbasi explained that people must stay on their land and continue to farm because if they lose their livelihoods then they lose hope. Farming allows people to sustain themselves independently. As with the Beit Sahour cows, Palestinians have become increasingly imaginative in developing ways to carve a living from diminishing resources and, despite severe restrictions, continue to provide for the community and even sell to foreign markets.

But this story resonates much farther afield than Palestine. It should remind us of how important it is to have control over the source of our own food. This is a freedom that people worldwide should fight to recover, as much of our food no longer comes from publicly traceable sources. At the same time we can draw inspiration from Palestinian farmers and the way Palestinians value food and farming. With an emphasis on community involvement, smallholdings and backyard farming, it is a far cry from the agro-industry and supermarket domination we have here in Britain and many other countries.

The Wanted 18 is a film about resistance and hope. It highlights the basic human right of food security and autonomy, and ultimately this is important to us all.

Q&A with filmmaker Amer Shomali

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What made you decide to make a film about this story? What do you hope to convey to people watching the film?

My selfish motivation was to have the chance to live the beautiful energetic time of the Palestinian Intifada, which I missed while living as a refugee in Syria. Through making this film and meeting the characters (heroes) of its story over the past five years, recreating their stories on camera, I wanted to be among them through this film… a window to the past. To my surprise the Palestinian audience wanted the same thing – even those from the older generation who lived it. They wanted to live this pride again, to feel dignity, to be reminded that they can do it again, that it almost worked 25 years ago and it can work this time. In the end, what the film gave me and others is hope.

Why did the community get rid of the cows when the Peace Accords were signed? 

All the characters told me that they felt betrayal. The same leadership that asked them to boycott and to establish an alternative economy betrayed them. By signing the Oslo and Paris protocol they gave Israel the upper hand. Do you know that according to the agreements signed we are not allowed to import seeds! We are doomed to be consumers and not producers… and slaves for ever.

At that time it seems that an Israeli was able to sell these cows to Palestinians, so there must have been interaction between the two sides. Could this happen today? 

Now it is harder. At that time we bought the cows from a left-wing Israeli kibbutz. A communist one called MAPAM. Those people were pushed out of the Israeli political public life starting from 1948 – none of the Israeli parties wanted those peaceniks to be in a decision-making position. One of the Israeli slogans during the election was ‘Keep MAPAM out’.

It seems that this story is so inspiring specifically because it is about cows. Do you think that interaction with the animals themselves gives people enjoyment and hope? 

We are animals too… talking ones… but animals kept their humanity while we did not.

Screenings will be taking place on the 23rd, 24th and 26th March during the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. Visit www.ff.hrw.org/london for more information. 

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