MUBI is hosting the exclusive global online premiere of Avi Mograbi's Between Fences (2016). It is showing from March 17 - April 16, 2017 as a Special Discovery.
In September 2012, 21 Eritrean refugees were trapped between the fences of the Egyptian-Israeli border. They managed to cross the Egyptian line, but while in no-man’s-land Israeli soldiers caught them, preventing them from entering Israel. For eight unbearably hot days they were trapped between the fences, and while the soldiers did provide them with water—in fact one of the refugees was also hydrated by infusion—they did not let them in.
One of the soldiers alerted the press, and that’s how the story broke. The human rights NGO “We Are Refugees” petitioned the High Court of Justice (HCJ) demanding that the state allow the refugees to enter and grant them asylum. The attorneys for the state were vehemently opposed. At the first court hearing, one got the impression that the judges were swaying in favor of the petitioners. In a surprising move, the state requested a 24-hour stay to “deal with the issue” so the court would not have to take a stand.
The next day, upon gathering in court for the second hearing, the state announced that the petition was no longer relevant as “the issue had been resolved.” The two women and the one underage male in the group had been allowed to enter, while the remaining 18 men had “returned to Egypt.” Later, when the three members of the group who’d been let in testified, they refuted the state’s claims of “willful” return to Egypt, describing instead how the army forced the men back into Egyptian territory. “On the eighth day, the Israelis came to our side of the fence and brought N, B and me into Israel. The men were thrown onto tarps, dragged under the fence, and pushed back to the Egyptian side. They begged for eight days, and on the eighth day they had no strength to resist. They were half dead and just yelled: ‘Kill me now’.” To this day, no one knows what happened to those 18 men.
When I read about this in the newspaper, I couldn’t help but think of similar events involving Jews in WWII. Like the ship St. Louis that set sail from Germany to Cuba in 1939, loaded with Jews seeking refuge in the Caribbean. The Cuban authorities did not allow the ship to dock, and it sailed back to Europe. Many of its passengers, who scattered across France, Belgium and the Netherlands, ended up in the death camps; or the Austrian Jews of Burgenland who were expelled across the border, and languished for days in the no-man’s-land between Czechoslovakia and Hungary; or the Jews of Kittsee and Pama who, adrift on raft, wandered back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Hungary; or the Rechnitz Jews whom Yugoslav authorities detained at the border, et cetera.
What stood out in my mind is how Switzerland dealt with Jewish refugees from Germany and France; we learned about it in school. In 1942, after the Germans occupied France, Switzerland tightened its immigration policy toward Jews persecuted by the Nazis for their “race.” Switzerland had progressive laws concerning political persecution, but not persecution on the grounds of race or religion. Thus, Jews caught crossing the border were sent back to France and Germany—where the Nazis annihilated many, if not most.
This story made a huge impression on me in high school. In my naiveté, I (mis)took its message—Never Again—for universal. I was convinced that this message, prominent in every textbook account of the Holocaust, had been internalized by every Jew in Israel—the state of refugees. The frustration and disillusionment I felt upon realizing just how un-universal it was, is the starting point for the making of this film.