review : Settling for too little in the Holylands

"Most terrorist activity is carried out at night," said a Jewish farmer, "including things like cutting down trees and theft." This seemed an unusually broad definition of terrorism, even if it hadn't been transmitted on a day when half an office block in Oklahoma had been obliterated without warning. But then the farmer in question, talking in The Holylands (C4), had his reasons for not being very discriminating about vocabulary. For one thing, his son had recently been murdered by members of Hamas; for another the trees are not non-combatants. They've been enlisted in what he constantly referred to as "the war". "If you put roots down, you hold on to it," he explained, referring to that grievously disputed soil. "If not, you lose it."

This was a legal description, not a metaphor. Under an old Ottoman law, if land has not been under continuous cultivation for a certain number of years it is up for grabs, a law that has been used to dispossess many Palestinians of the farms they believed were theirs. Wednesday night's film included one of these too, a bitter old man, freshly returned from prison and consumed with rage at the settlers just across the fence. In keeping with the other films in his trilogy, Tom Roberts had found a neat symmetry of grievance and mutual incomprehension.

As the films continued, though, you had good cause to wonder whether televisual symmetries have much to tell us about such complex matters. In some respects The Holylands was classy television, filmed with a fine eye for composition and colour, patient in its attention to personal accounts of that apparently intractable conflict. But as the expressions of unyielding hatred pounded on, the films' vision became increasingly questionable. It reminded you that for many journalists, Israel's principal export is not Jaffa oranges but this biblical antagonism, dressed with a highly marketable rhetoric of blood and intransigence. It's there for the picking if you want to shape your film, to neatly balance its blind hatreds on the fulcrum of the viewer's detached reasonableness.

So The Holylands presented the "hazardous road to peace" as a series of set-piece contrasts, each seemingly designed to emphasise how many roadblocks there are. In the first episode, for example, you cut between the brutalised Israeli soldiers manning an outpost in the refugee camp of Jebalya to the brutalised children on the other side of the wire, used both as troops and cover by Palestinian fighters. In one scene the pupils in a classroom reeled off their wounds at the hands of the Israeli soldiers, a roll-call of rubber bullets and live rounds. But there was something navely trusting about the way the camera dwelled on this - it was, after all, a scene that provided more evidence of peer group pressure than of actual events. And time and time again, The Holylands settled for the gossip of mutual hatred rather than the facts, for images of extreme confrontation rather than the messy, grudging compromise of those bending their minds to peace.

What you saw wasn't meaningless, it's true. But how much of a revelation is it that some Jews feel unappeasable hatred for Arabs and some Arabs return the compliment? What fresh perspective is offered by contrasting the ugly venom of a Kach settler in Hebron with the unappeasable grief of an Arab mother whose son was killed in the massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarch? Such people may prove an obstacle to peace. In some cases their zeal seems to present almost insuperable problems (the Israeli government, for instance, has shown itself willing to shoot Arabs to preserve the peace - would it ever be willing to shoot Jews for the same end?) But these extremes have never constituted the raw material for peace. That exists somewhere between them, in messy details far less congenial to the visitor with patterns already in mind.