Israel: Cellular firm ad stirs occupation debate

A television ad for Cellcom, the largest Israeli cellular provider, sprung an unprecedented debate on the face of the Israeli occupation over the past two weeks. The advert, which can be watched here shows Israeli soldiers playing soccer with unseen Palestinians over the wall separating Israel and the West Bank, to the sound of popular music, using adjectives like sababa and achla, representing ‘fun’ and ‘swell’ in both Arabic and Hebrew slang and the narration asks: “After all, what do we all really want? Just to have a little fun.”

The advertisement produced by McCann Erickson advertising agency, was accepted as insensitive at best by many Israelis, becoming an icon of blindness to the occupation in the Israeli society. The Facebook group titled “I too get nausea from watching Cellcom's new ad” has 2,355 members to date and is growing daily.

Here is a sample of the main arguments voiced by many bloggers:

“After all, what do we all really want? Not to see beyond the separation fence. And then everything is indeed ‘sababa': army service is fun and war is really a game in which the unseen Palestinians are little pawns one can move without paying a price in the real world. This ad is a perfect reflection of our reality: we see only the things that affect our side. The soldiers in the ad are not interested in meeting the people who live on the other side…..finally the ad exposes what the army generals tried to hide from us: on the other side of the fence there are no human beings at all. Looking above the fence (min 0:47) we see there's nothing on the other side – everything is empty and green!”

(Romi Izhaki)

“What where the guys in McCann Erickson thinking when they chose the separation wall to star in the new Cellcom ad? If they wanted to represent the vision of a new middle east, why hide the Palestinians behind a concrete wall and present the soldiers as ball snatchers who only care about their fun? The result is an ad with the sensitivity of sandpaper and what stings most is the fact it makes the situation we live in seem not only bearable but even fun.

(Lior Zalmanson)

“The new Cellcom ad may seem like a bad taste provocation, similar to the Benetton ads with the hungry children, but it's actually an attempt to associate the firm with mainstream Israeliness, hence, involving the army. .. In an academic paper following the peace meter by Herman and Yaar from 2001, the authors found Israel is torn in half between the people who support and object the Oslo agreement. However, both sides agree on one thing: weather there'll be a Palestinian state or not, the Palestinians should be totally separated from us. We are here and they are there. And maybe one day it'll be ‘achla” or at least fast internet connection between these sides.

The separation wall allows us to push the Palestinians beyond the horizon, beyond visibility. It allows us to shrink their existence and reduce our friction to occasional ball swapping, replacing the occupation goal with a goal conquest. Cellcom's ad is infuriating because for some audiences it creates the impression of a peace gesture, coexistence and acknowledgment of the other side's humanity, when in fact it isn't. Because there's no other side there and we don't really care about it. In fact the message of this ad is that the separation wall allows us to keep playing and have fun, and we all know who the party poopers are”.

(Mouli Bentman)

The criticism united both sides of the political spectrum as demonstrated on Yuval Adam‘s blog. Yuval writes:

“when I watched this ad I shivered. I've been there at the separation wall, I visited the other side. Even right wing voters admit the other side wants more than just a little fun. Regardless of political affinity, you cannot deny people on the other side are suffering. …this ad demonstrates cultural blindness and reality blindness. The heartless people who produced it are blind to the real meaning of this wall and to the people behind it. It seems the ones who built that wall succeeded in making us forget what's behind it, if we ever remembered.”

Miriam, comments on the same post:

“I belong to the opposite political spectrum but when I saw this ad I was shocked as well. First, it makes our soldiers look stupid, willing to throw everything away for a stupid ball. Second, I live not far away from the wall and can see it from my garden. I know Palestinian people in this area and I know how much they suffer. This wall is a matter of survival for both sides and it's not about entertainment. Our soldiers play free and on the other side they're trapped, invisible, meaning not human. Just a force that throws balls so we can enjoy, on their expense. I recommend the makers of this ad to get out of their air conditioned offices for one day and visit the wall so they will have a better understanding of reality”.

Others chose to voice their criticism through viral distribution of spoofs: the first spoof replaces the soccer game with the actual war the metaphor stands for, showing Israeli soldiers bombing Palestinians instead of throwing a ball and the Palestinians reacting in cries of mourning to the laughter of the soldiers.

The second spoof attempts to insert the missing face of the Palestinian side, representing the Palestinian as a gagged man that regardless of the fact his hands and legs are tied, he kicks back the ball as if he's being forced to.

Such visuals would be considered anti-Israeli if they weren't edited and distributed by Israelis. Cellcom has asked both YouTube and Flix, a Hebrew video sharing website, to take off the videos on account of copyright infringement, but many Israelis re uploaded and shared them on Facebook over the last week. The videos were also re uploaded to YouTube and currently can be watched via the provided links.

Other people fail to see what’s so wrong about this ad, as Moti Shushan writes on the wall of the Facebook protest group:

“I actually like the ad. The only thing sad about it is that it was made by a commercial company and not the ministry of education. The ad is so wonderful and innocent, it shows you there can be a ball instead a bullet between the two sides and it's an attempt to dream beyond our reality. The only thing that makes me noxious is that this beautiful situation is so surreal we can only imagine it in an advert”.

Yariv Oppenheimer writes in defense of the Ad on Ynet opinion section:

“The immediate message of this ad is that behind the fence there are people who also want to live a normal life, thus breaking the stereotype of the Palestinian people as filled with hate and violence and want to destroy us. It is rare to present them as partners for a ball game, as good neighbors. Their invisibility only reminds us that behind the fence children families and dreams were forgotten. In addition, IDF soldiers are portrayed as normative people who might enjoy a human encounter with “the enemy”. The ad portrays an ideal of humanism and respect expected from our soldiers in their daily engagements with Palestinians. The ad might change a bit the perception so rooted in us that every Palestinian is a potential enemy….it's a brave attempt to represent on screen the longing we have for peace, on prime time and by a commercial firm no less”.

Indeed, Cellcom may have had good intentions by creating this ad, since as Walla!news discovered, the football game idea was inspired by an older Israeli ad made for OneVoice‘s peace campaign visioning to host the 2018 world cup in Israel-Palestine. In addition, blogger Yoav Einhar pointed out that the graffiti on the separation wall in the ad, was drawn by graffiti artist Banksy, who sympathized with Palestinian suffering. The real graffiti was drawn on the Palestinian side of the fence in Abu Dis and can be seen in Einhar's post.

Many angry customers got formal responses from Cellcom that were posted on blog comments and on the Facebook group protesting against the ad:

“Our intention was to show that we are all human beings that want to enjoy life in every situation and that fun connects between people….The message of this campaign was that human communication exists in every situation. We got many positive and supportive feedbacks too. There was no intention to be cynical, to hurt anybody or to take any political stand”.

Ideal or not, Palestinians from Bil'iin demonstrated this week that we’re still far from the fun atmosphere of the ad. Their attempt to play football with real Israeli soldiers by the fence, resulted in a small uprising and some tear gas, as documented in this raw footage, using Cellcom's ad music, which can be watched here.


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