Television review – Daily Mail, 30 March 1998

Warriors bear witness

The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs (BBC2)

Things have reached a pretty pass when far and away the most gripping programme to be seen on television over an entire weekend turns out to be a current affairs documentary.

Mind you, The 50 Years War is no ordinary documentary.

An amazing cast – almost every key player in the life and death struggle between Israel and its Arab enemies – has been interviewed and archive plundered to allow even the dead to have their say.

This series takes events that to most of us have been no more than a blur of newsreels over the years and gives us a ringside seat in the making of history.

Those who were there at the time describe the repeated slaughter of the innocents of both sides, the assassinations, the outrage at the murder of Jewish athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Palestinian airliner hijackings (when for years buying an air ticket became a dangerous lottery), the Israeli land grabs in a succession of wars whose repercussions still embarrassingly preoccupy the Robin Cooks of this world, and the senseless destruction of Beirut.

This is a fascinating history lesson – and fascinating TV – that prefers eye witness testimony to the dull recitation of events and dates.

Naturally, there's plenty of anecdotage from the usual suspects – old Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig (ever eager to tell a story if it makes him look good).

But there were also odd, rarely seen characters like President Numeiri of Sudan, a young T-shirted revolutionary in the early Seventies and today clad in snowy-white raiment, a wily and traditional Arab elder.

Numeiri's story of how he rescued Yasser Arafat from a bombed cellar in Amman, Jordan, after King Hussein had turned on the Palestinians during Black September, 1970, was the stuff of thrillers.

Arafat – someone called him the Great Escaper – was smuggled to Cairo in disguise, having literally had a close shave, for he had to remove his beard to pass the Jordanian troops at the airport.

King Hussein, too, proved a devastatingly frank witness, describing how his kingdom was on the point of falling because Arafat and his 'fighters' endangered their hosts by turning Jordan into a base against Israel and even shot up the King's car.

Ironically, it was the Israelis, commandeered for the purpose by the Americans, who saved Hussein by using their planes to buzz advancing Syrian tanks and turn them back from the gates of Jordan's capital.

The great inspiration of Norma Percy and David Ash, the creators of this splendid series, was to realise just how many key people from both sides and those who served the Cold War superpowers cynically pulling the strings are still available, and only too delighted, to have their retirement interrupted for an interview.

The result is enthralling.

To BFI Film + TV databaseTo BBC OnlineDavid Ash, producer-director

Television documentaries by British programme maker David Ash

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