01 Sabra Marvel

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Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi CNN  — 

The classic 1981 Marvel comic page shows the giant green Hulk, tears streaming down his face as he yells at Sabra, an Israeli superhero and agent of the country’s Mossad spy agency. The corpse of a young Palestinian boy, killed in an explosion by apparently Arab “terrorists” at his feet.

“Boy died because boy’s people and yours both want to own land! Boy died because you wouldn’t share!” the Hulk says.

A few panels later, the woman in the white and blue costume with a Star of David on her chest kneels next to the boy.

“It has taken the Hulk to make her see this dead Arab boy as a human being,” the comic says. “It has taken a monster to awaken her own sense of humanity.”

Sabra, the Israeli superhero, made numerous appearances in Marvel’s comics over the years, starring alongside top icons such as the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men.

More than forty years after Sabra was introduced, Disney’s Marvel plans to bring her to film in “Captain America: New World Order,” set to be released in 2024. That has created an uproar among those who fear that reviving Sabra’s character would spread offensive stereotypes about Arabs and the dehumanization of Palestinians in cinema.

Critics say many of the Arab characters she interacted with in the comics are shown as misogynistic, antisemitic and violent, and are questioning whether the troubling portrayals of Arabs will play out differently in the film.

“That comic doesn’t suggest anything positive about how this film will play out,” said Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American writer and analyst based in Washington, D.C. “The whole concept” of turning Israeli spies into heroes “is insensitive and disgraceful.”

“The glorification of violence against Palestinians specifically and Arabs and Muslims more broadly in mass media has a long and ugly history in the West and it has remarkable staying power,” he added.

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Waleed F. Mahdi, author of “Arab Americans in Film: From Hollywood and Egyptian Stereotypes to Self-Representation,” said the “US-Israeli alliance” in cinematic narrative since the 1960s has celebrated American and Israeli law enforcement and intelligence agencies as good forces “committed to deterring violence that has been chiefly linked to Arabs and Muslims.”

“Marvel’s announcement of adapting the comic character of Sabra is a reflection of this legacy,” he told CNN.

A Marvel Studios spokesperson told CNN that “filmmakers are taking a new approach with the character Sabra who was first introduced in the comics over 40 years ago,” adding that characters in Marvel Cinematic Universe “are always freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience.”

Even some Israelis say Sabra may not be a superhero for our times. Etgar Keret, an Israeli author, scriptwriter and graphic novelist, told CNN that the original Sabra character was created in a different era with a “simple and clear story”.

“This Sabra was created before two [Palestinian] Intifadas [uprisings], it was created before the failing of the Oslo Accords – it was created in a totally different reality and state of mind,” he said. “And now… it’s tough to keep this kind of icon of simplicity.”

The superhero’s name is a nickname for a Jewish person born in Israel or the occupied territories, and stems from the Hebrew term for the fruit of a prickly pear. It has been in widespread use since the 1930s, before Israel was established.

But the word is spelled the same way in English as one of two Palestinian communities in Lebanon where a massacre of more than 1,000 Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite civilians was carried out by Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel during the 1982 Lebanon-Israel war – known as the Sabra and Shatila Massacre, named after the places in which it occurred.

In 1983 the Israeli government released The Kahan Commission of Inquiry into the events that occurred at the refugee camps and found the Israeli army indirectly responsible. It concluded that the army approved the militiamen’s entry into the area and didn’t take appropriate measures to prevent the killings. Ariel Sharon, then defense minister, was forced to resign as a result of the inquiry’s findings.

Marvel’s Sabra character was created before the Sabra and Shatila massacre and has no relation to it, but the announcement to bring her to cinemas just a week before the massacre’s 40th anniversary has touched a raw nerve with Arabs, who accuse the film studio of being insensitive to one of the most tragic events in the history of the Palestinian people.

“It’s not just in the timing or the name but also in the fact that the massacre itself was led by a Mossad-linked [militia] in territory under Israeli military control,” said Munayyer. “Given all of this, it is hard not to conclude that the people at Marvel are either abjectly ignorant about the region, its history and the Palestinian experience, or that they deliberately aimed to kick a people living under apartheid while they were down.”

Although Sabra would not be the first time Israel’s intelligence agency has been given the Hollywood treatment, it is the first time the Mossad has been given a supernatural status to the level of a mega, blockbuster superhero. Experts say that’s a public relations win for the agency.

Avner Avraham, a former Mossad officer and founder of the Spy Legends Agency which consults for film and TV shows portraying Israeli spies, said the new portrayal will help a younger generation learn about the Mossad.

“This is the ‘TikTok’ way, the cartoon way to talk to the new generation, and they will learn about the word Mossad,” Avraham said. “It helps the branding. It will add a different audience.”

Such exposure can even help Mossad recruit sources and assistance in other countries, he added.

“The fact that they decided to take a Mossad agent, a Sabra, and they didn’t take an Egyptian agent or Italian agent, it shows Mossad is a big name,” Avraham said.

Uri Fink, an Israeli cartoonist who says he came up with a similar Israeli superhero character first in 1978, fears however that the “progressives” working at Marvel may turn the Israeli agent into a negative character. “They are not well updated, they don’t have an exact description of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he told CNN.

Avraham echoed that concern, speculating that she may be portrayed as a character that does good for Israel but “bad things to other people.”

CNN’s Michael Schwartz, Abeer Salman and Mohammed Abdelbary contributed to this article

The digest

Armed woman demanding access to deposits takes hostages at bank in Beirut

A group of people, at least one of whom was armed, took hostages at a bank in central Beirut on Wednesday, demanding access to deposits, state news agency NNA reported. A woman carrying a handgun entered the bank, “doused herself in petrol and threatened to set herself on fire if she was prevented from withdrawing funds to treat her sick sister,” NNA said. She was able to withdraw about $20,000 from her account before leaving the bank. Lebanon’s Directorate of General Security said on Twitter that the woman wasn’t arrested. She said in an interview with a local TV channel that the gun was “a toy” that belonged to her nephew.

  • Background: Faced with an economic meltdown, Lebanon implemented strict restrictions on withdrawals from banks in October 2019, preventing people from getting access to their savings.
  • Why it matters: This was the second known hostage situation at a bank in the capital in almost a month. Last month, an armed man stormed a Beirut bank and threatened to kill hostages and himself if he wasn’t allowed to withdraw funds from his frozen account. The man said he needed the sum to help pay for his father’s medical expenses. The stand-off ended when the bank gave Hussein part of his savings. Experts have warned that such incidents are likely to be replicated in the heavily armed country.

Iran says it has developed new long-range drones for attacks on Israeli cities

Iran has developed an advanced long-range drone to target Israeli cities, Brigadier General Kioomars Heidari told state TV on Monday.

  • Background: The drone, named Arash-2, “has unique capabilities,” Heidari said, adding that Tehran is “considering this Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) specifically for an attack on Haifa and Tel Aviv.” Separately on Monday, the director of Israel’s Mossad spy service said that Israel would retaliate against Iran if Tehran used force “against Israel or Israelis.”
  • Why it matters: As world powers try to revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran’s regional foes – namely Israel and Gulf Arab states – have been expressing concern over a potentially emboldened Iran once sanctions are lifted.

Israeli officer and two Palestinians killed in exchange of fire at West Bank fence

An Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officer and two Palestinians were killed in an exchange of fire early on Wednesday along the fence that separates the West Bank and Israel, not far from Jenin.

  • Background: According to the IDF, the officer killed was Maj. Bar Falah, 30, from Netanya, north of Tel Aviv. The Palestinian Ministry of Health confirmed the death of two Palestinian men, naming them as Ahmed Ayman Ibrahim Abed, 23, and Abdulrahman Hani Subhi Abed, 22, both from Jenin. The IDF said both were carrying automatic weapons.
  • Why it matters: At least 97 Palestinians have been killed in nearly nightly Israeli military raids this year, especially focused on the Jenin area. The Israeli army says most have been militants killed during violent clashes with Israeli soldiers. But uninvolved civilians have also been caught up in the violence. There has been a marked increase in Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians in the West bank, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights watchdog. Israel also says violent attacks against Israelis, particularly soldiers, is also at a high.

Around the region

Saudi authorities in the holy city of Mecca have arrested a man who said he was performing the Islamic pilgrimage for the soul of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

The Mecca authorities late on Monday tweeted that security forces apprehended a Yemeni resident who had appeared in a video “violating rules” in the holy city’s Great Mosque, where Muslims perform the Hajj pilgrimage, and the lesser pilgrimage called Umrah.

Videos on social media showed the man holding a placard reading, in both English and Arabic, “This Umrah was performed for the soul of Queen Elizabeth II. We ask God to accept her in heaven as one of the righteous people.”

The Mecca Region tweeted a video of the man with his face and the placard blurred. It didn’t say which rules the man had flouted but said he was referred to public prosecution. Political signs are prohibited during the pilgrimage.

Many responded in anger and called for the man’s arrest, while others mocked him and questioned his motives. Some said it was forbidden to pray for the soul of a non-Muslim. The Queen was head of the Church of England, a title now taken by her son King Charles III.

The Queen, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, died last week at the age of 96. Saudi Arabia sent condolences to the UK last week, with King Salman referring to her as “a role model for leadership that will be immortalized in history.”

By Nadeen Ebrahim

Photo of the day

Christian Greek Orthodox worshippers gather on a cliff around a lit wooden crucifix to celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the coastal town of Anfeh, some 70 kilometers (43 miles) north of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Tuesday.