At Disney’s D23 Expo, the latest superhero to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe was announced to widespread criticism. Sabra – an Israeli superhero by night, Mossad agent and Israeli police officer by day – is to join the Captain America franchise in a provocative move that has offended Palestinians and Arabs worldwide. She will be played by Shira Haas.
Marvel has come under fire for dodging politics before, especially avoiding the polarised US political climate. Yet it looks very like they are getting political here. In the binary “good versus evil” world of their action movies, Marvel surely knows how an Israeli government agent being styled as a superhero must look. It feels very much like choosing a side in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
For millions of Palestinians, Israeli security forces and intelligence agencies are symbols of fear, oppression and violence. Just last month, Israel (again) launched airstrikes on the Gaza strip, killing at least 10 Palestinians, including children, and once more crippling the city’s infrastructure. (Palestinian militants affiliated with the group Islamic Jihad fired rockets into Israel in response, but so far no one in Israel has been reported injured or killed.) From forced evictions to implementing an apartheid system, the way in which Israel treats its Palestinian neighbours – and its citizens of Palestinian origin – continues to be deeply problematic.
Although we are yet to know plot details of the latest Marvel movie, past comics give an insight into Sabra’s world. First appearing in a 1980 Hulk comic draped in an Israeli flag, Sabra fights enemies across Israel who – you can probably guess – are Arab terrorists. One storyline concerns her saving an Israeli school bus from Palestinian terrorists. In one widely tweeted example, the comic’s text itself appears to recognise the dehumanisation of Palestinians in Sabra’s perspective, reading: “It has taken The Hulk to make her [Sabra] see this dead Arab boy as a human being.”
The denigration of Palestinians is not limited to Marvel but is prevalent in film and TV. In Jack Shaheen’sReel Bad Arabs, he notes that of the thousands of films analysed between 1986 and 2000, only 12 Arab characters had positive roles compared to the colossal 935 negative portrayals. More recently, shows like Netflix’s Fauda and the Spy, as all as Apple TV’s Tehran present Palestinians and other Middle Easterners as perpetrators of violence with Israelis as heroes.
If Marvel wanted to be truly politically balanced, they would tell the story of a Palestinian superhero protecting Arab children from Israeli rockets hitting a Palestinian school or hospital alongside the heroic narratives of Sabra. Of course, the idea seems far-fetched. Away from fiction, any Palestinians trying to defend themselves, even non-violently, are often labeled terrorists. Last month, seven Palestinian human rights organisations were raided and closed by Israeli forces after being branded as funding fronts for terrorists, despite the CIA finding no evidence to corroborate that allegation.
Indeed, for Palestinians, just the new superhero’s name of Sabra is controversial, reminiscent as it is of the Sabra and Shatila massacre (which witnesses its 40th anniversary this week.) In 1982, after occupying southern Lebanon, Israeli forces surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, preventing anyone from escaping before allowing a far-right militia group to enter and murder up to 3,500 (mainly) Palestinian refugees. Over a two-day period, Israeli forces would fire flares lighting the alleys of the camp to allow the massacre to continue overnight. The Kahan Commission later found that the then-Israeli defence minister, Ariel Sharon, bore “personal responsibility” for the massacre.
A Jewish superhero is a wonderful idea. I can imagine a world in which a proud Jewish hero joins forces with Ms Marvel, the first Marvel Muslim superhero. That’s co-existence. That’s progress. A superhero directly affiliated with Israeli forces who spends her time fighting Arabs isn’t.