Nonie Darwish is at the center of the award-winning documentary, ‘Telling Nonie,’ as the Israeli assassin of her Egyptian colonel father seeks redemption (Courtesy Paramount Ananey Studios)

October 7 Echoes in a Documentary About an Israeli Agent Seeking Redemption

‘Telling Nonie’ brings together an aging Israeli operative with the daughter of the Egyptian lieutenant colonel he helped assassinate in Gaza in the 1950s

On October 5, 2023, director Paz Schwartz accepted the award for best documentary film at the Haifa Film Festival for “Telling Nonie,” her film about an aging Israeli secret service agent who seeks redemption for his role in killing an Egyptian lieutenant colonel in the 1950s in Gaza by meeting the colonel’s daughter, Nonie Darwish. Two days later, Schwartz woke up to sirens and news of the attack on the Gaza border communities, in which children of her friends on Kibbutz Be’eri were killed and taken hostage. Some 1,200 people were killed in total and 253 taken hostage to Gaza, and Israeli reality shifted swiftly. “I didn’t speak to anyone for two weeks. I was completely lost,” said Schwartz. Within days, Schwartz heard from Darwish, the Egyptian-born daughter of Colonel Mustafa Hafez. Only months earlier Darwish had been in Israel to meet the agent who helped assassinate her father. Darwish and the former agent, Geizi Tsafrir, had sat on lawn chairs near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, on the Israeli border overlooking Gaza, where Darwish had lived as a child and where her father was killed. “She called me, crying, saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, are you okay, are your kids okay?’” said Schwartz. “I told her, ‘You have nothing to be sorry for.’ But she’s been calling me; she’s like the aunt from America.” It was a moment of reversals, as Darwish was orphaned at age eight when Israeli forces assassinated her father, a senior army officer stationed in Gaza at the time. Nahal Oz and its adjacent army base became the scene of one of the bloodiest attacks of October 7.

Darwish and Schwartz had become close friends over the years of making the film. Darwish, who lives in California, has been a pro-Israel activist since al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attack on the United States. Schwartz’s 50-minute film, produced by Paramount’s Ananey Studios, tells the story of what happened when Darwish’s father, the head of military intelligence in Gaza in the 1950s, was killed by an explosive device delivered to him through Israeli agents. Using black-and-white footage from Cairo and Gaza, old photos and emotional interviews with three of the special agents and Darwish, Schwartz takes viewers through the incident that changed the trajectory of Darwish’s life.

Her Turkish-born father, Mustafa Hafez, was sent to Gaza by Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser, during a time when hundreds of Israelis were being killed in the south by Arab fedayeen who stole over the border into Israel. Geizi Tsafrir, an Israeli agent, had been recruited for Israel’s security services while still in high school. His career in Mossad and the Shin Bet lasted decades, with placements in Lebanon and Turkey, Paris and Africa, but his role in Hafez’s death haunted him.

Darwish had moved to the US with her Christian Arab husband, whom she met while still in Cairo. Their three children were born and raised there. The film tells about Darwish’s change of conscience after 9/11, when the wars she tried to escape by moving to the US came to America’s shores. Her mother and siblings, still living in Egypt, told her that Jews carried out the 9/11 attacks, false rhetoric that infuriated Darwish. “I look at Israel in a very different way from the traditional Arab way of looking at Israel, and it’s time for the Arab view of Israel to progress,” Darwish told The Times of Israel. “The Jewish people came out of Egypt, they’re not aliens, and it’s time for us to face it.”

As the waves of antisemitism and anti-Zionism fueled by the war in Gaza have spread across the US, Darwish continues to speak publicly. She believes that pro-Israel people have to be more vocal. “I will never stop doing this; it’s almost like the goal of my life,” she said. Her family in Cairo is no longer in touch with her, a reality that she has long accepted. “It wasn’t a happy family from the very beginning; it was a broken family,” said Darwish. “Unfortunately, Arab culture is either ‘I love you’ or ‘I hate you.’ It’s not easy and it’s not very healthy.”

Schwartz, a journalist, discovered Darwish’s story through her own grandmother, who died in 2020. The family found a box full of love letters that weren’t from Schwartz’s grandfather and figured out that their grandmother had an earlier love, a big shot in the pre-state Palmach paramilitary organization. It was through that story that Schwartz discovered Tsafrir and his complicated history. They met, and when he told Schwartz about Nonie Darwish and her father, Schwartz saw the potential for a documentary.

That was in 2021, and after filming Darwish in California, she brought her to Israel to meet Tsafrir, just nine months prior to October 7. “We felt like it was a moment of hope,” said Schwartz.

The film was meant to premiere on October 12 after its screening at the Haifa festival, where judges noted that the film showed Arabs and Jews recognizing one another’s pain, perhaps paving the way toward a better future.

After the Hamas attack of October 7, Schwartz approached the Hostages Families Forum and returned to more familiar work as a TV journalist often reporting from the south on stories of loss and heroism, of the evacuees and survivors. One of her projects is about Kibbutz Be’eri victim Lior Tarshansky, 15, who was killed on October 7 as his sister, Gali, 13, was taken captive to Gaza; she was released at the end of November. Nine of Lior’s classmates were either killed or taken captive, and Schwartz is working on a piece about the family, who are longtime friends of hers.

As for Darwish, she believes in her friend, Paz Schwartz, and feels the film couldn’t have come out at a more important time. “I always have hope,” said Darwish. “There’s plenty of space in the Middle East for everybody, there’s no shortage of land for Arabs, and it’s time for the Arab world and the Islamic world to really accommodate and even welcome Israel in that tough neighborhood.”


By Jessica Steinberg | Published on The Times of Israel | 12 May 2024