“Fouda,” a new drama about undercover Israeli agents searching for a Hamas terrorist, brings the simmering, real-life tensions of the West Bank to the TV screen.
Written by Times of Israel correspondent Avi Issacharoff and the series’ lead actor, Lior Raz for the YES satellite TV company, the series focuses on a team of mistaarvim, the term used for Israeli soldiers dressed like Arabs in order to carry out a military operation. The word is based on the historical term used for Jews who lived in Arab lands, speaking the native Arabic and adopting the customs of the land in order to fit in.
“Fouda” offers a different kind of undercover operation.
The show’s agents live in a constant state of fouda, or chaos, an Arabic word frequently used by the agents to describe moments when their cover is blown and they have to get out, fast.
It’s a world that is familiar to Issacharoff, an Israeli Middle East analyst who has been writing about the West Bank and Gaza Strip for the last 15 years, delving deep into the psyche and lives of the Palestinians on the other side of the fence.
He meets regularly with special forces from Hamas, sitting in their offices and homes, drinking coffee with them and seeing the picture, he said, from many angles. They trust him, and allow themselves to be personal and intimate with him.
“I see the picture from 360 degrees,” he said. “There’s a mountain, a barrier that doesn’t let the public know about the terrorists on the other side. It’s a fascinating story.”
He and Raz, who knew each other as kids in Jerusalem, bumped into each other several years ago and discovered they had both been thinking about creating this kind of series. It’s a story that hasn’t been told before, said Issacharoff.
The core of the first season of “Fouda” is the unit’s search for Tawfik Hamed, a Hamas operative who killed 116 Israelis in terror attacks and was thought killed by Raz’s character, Doron, who has since retired to the country with his family to grow grapes. Hamed, however, has surfaced again, and may show up at his brother’s wedding. Doron’s former commander, Moreno, played by Yuval Segel, asks Doron to join the operation, just for “two hours.”
“You have here an arch terrorist,” said Issacharoff, “the devil himself who killled 116 Israelis. He’s the devil, and still, he loves his wife and loves his kids and he’s missing the wedding of his brother who he hasn’t seen for a year and a half. We’ll be seeing him buying perfume for his wife and finding himself in all kinds of arguments with the people around him, with the Hamas leadership.”
“Fouda,” said Issacharoff, aims to portray the full persona of Hamed, “not a poster.”
The team quickly gears up and heads to the fictional Silwad, near Ramallah, which is a close approximation to the real Silwad, where terrorist Ibrahim Hamed, who was found guilty of killing 46 Israelis, also lived.
The first season of “Fouda” was filmed last summer in Kfar Kassem, an Arab town in the country’s center, said Issacharoff. With the war taking place in Gaza and rockets falling nearly every day in Israel, the show ended up canceling only one day of filming.
“The mayor called up and was insulted that we even canceled one day,” he said.
Given what was happening down in Gaza, it felt more than a little ironic. But that’s a running theme in “Fouda.”
It’s a show that may rattle more than a few Israeli viewers, added Issacharoff. Besides showing the often terrifying events that take place in the Arab villages located “just on the other side of the wall from Israel,” said Issacharoff, at least half of the show is in Arabic, the language of the Hamas fighters that is also spoken fluently by all the undercover agents.
“The spoken Arabic is a statement,” said Issacharoff. “It was obvious the series had to be in Arabic. These undercover units speak Arabic and speak in the best dialects, whether it’s Ramallah or Hebron, and you have to be precise about that.”
It was also a factor when choosing the cast. Two of the cast members, Tsahi Halevy and Shadi Mar’i, played closely related characters in last year’s breakout film “Bethlehem,” about a Shin Bet handler and his young Palestinian collaborator. Now Halevy is one of the undercover agents while Mar’i plays the assistant to Hamed, the Hamas terrorist.
A third “Bethlehem” actor, Haithem Soliman, who played Mar’i’s older brother, Ibrahim, the terrorist in that movie, plays the role of the central terrorist Tawfik Hamed, or “The Panther,” as he’s known to the undercover agents in “Fouda.”
The audience at Monday night’s screening, which included actors, celebrities and reality TV stars as well as several generals and former prime minister Ehud Barak, was wowed by the first episode.
Issacharoff is waiting to hear what the larger Israeli public will think, and, he hopes, Hollywood as well.
“I think the Israeli viewer will be in shock,” said Issacharoff. “It punches you in the gut, leaves you breathless.”
While the drama would need to be altered for an American audience, similar to what happened with the Israeli “Hatufim” when it was adapted into “Homeland,” the concept can remain the same, as the US Army, Navy and Air Force all have undercover forces, said Issacharoff.
“There are forces that know how to speak Pashtan, and know the mentality of the people,” he said. “It’s not known to the American public, but it’s there.”
The fouda, you could say, exists everywhere.
“Fouda” will air on YES Sunday nights, starting Sunday, February 15, at 10:15 p.m.