The Palestinian Film

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Door: Jan Schnerr - Laatst aangepast op: 18 januari 2021

with advice and suggestions from Margot Heijnsbroek

Hany Abu-Assad op de set van Omar. Source

Table of contents

  1. Introduction to the Palestinian film
  2. The link between Palestinian film and Arab film
  3. Recent history, relevant to the Palestinian film
  4. The first period: the early years, 1935-1948
  5. The second period: the time of silence, 1948-1967
  6. The third period: struggles and documentaries, 1968-1982
  7. The fourth period: diaspora, creative film, 1982-2000/2005
  8. The fifth period: 2000/2005-present
  9. Film in occupied territories, in Israel, in diaspora
  10. Training and other infra structure
  11. Outreach/cooperation with other countries

1 Introduction to Palestinian Cinema

“One of the best sources for understanding Palestinian culture is its cinema which has devoted itself to serving the national struggle.” (

Since September 2020, the (English-language) website palestinecinema, a website with a very extensive database of Palestinian films, has been accessible: . The site now contains about 1000 titles. Not all films are made by Palestinians: the only criterion for including a film is whether it illuminates something about the fate of Palestinians and/or their conflict with Israel. In collaboration with the Dutch creators of this site palestinecinema, the Knowledge Center offers below a background article on the cultural roots of Palestinian cinema and the political context in which it emerged and grew. In addition, other articles in the Knowledge Center link to films on palestinecinema where appropriate.

What follows below?

Palestinian cinema (including documentaries) could be classified in the main category of Arab cinema (see section 2 below). This is certainly true of the work of Palestinian filmmakers, with Palestinian themes and mostly Palestinian actors. Many films by Palestinians were made outside of Israel/Palestine (sect. 9), often financed from there, and sometimes strongly influenced by Western films (also: sect. 11). Palestinian film can be better understood against the background of the turbulent history of Palestine and the Palestinians in the last hundred years. Therefore, a very brief look at that history (sect. 3). We divide the development of Palestinian cinema into five periods: sect. 4 to 8. The history of Israel as a Jewish state and that of the Palestinians within that framework is a very violent one. The erasure of events and the rewriting of history by the “victor” has helped make documentaries an important category within Palestinian cinema. Section 9 discusses the geographic distribution of Palestinians and their film production, and section 10 briefly discusses the supporting base under Palestinian cinema: infrastructure.

2 The link between Palestinian and Arab cinema

Palestinian cinema, with its strong national character, has a distinct place of its own within Arab cinema. First, because of the very turbulent and tragic recent history of the Palestinian people, especially since the State of Israel was established in 1948. Secondly, because of the events since then, this people has become dispersed over large parts of the world. ‘Arab’ refers to people who speak Arabic as their first language and who experience a kinship through a shared history and culture. Twenty-two countries fit that description: from Morocco to Iraq and from Lebanon to Oman. Religion is not the criterion: although the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, there are also Arab Christians (including Palestinians) and Arab Jews. This global description forgoes many ethnic nuances. So does the Arab Film and Media Institute (AFMI). For Palestinian film, not only is the larger framework of Arab culture important, but more directly, Palestinian culture.

What is the place of Arab film alongside “Western” film, for example, in terms of stereotypes? What are and were important themes in the history of Arab film? How relevant is the fact that film in the Arab world originated at a time, in the early 20th century, when European colonial empires were at the height of their power? For the search for good sources, here are some suggestions, taking the Arab Film and Media Institute (AFMI) as a starting point.

A selection of other sites:

3 Recent history, relevant to Palestinian cinema

Palestine has a history of thousands of years. Important for the emergence of the later specifically Palestinian culture are the periods of the Ottoman Empire (until 1918) and British rule (1918-1947). With the waves of Jewish immigration (from the end of the 19th century), ethnic tensions and violence increased. Depths of violence and expulsions were the wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967, the bombing of the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian popular uprisings of 1987 and 2000. This violent history has left deep marks also on the Palestinian film landscape. The same applies to Israel’s occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with the promise of peace and a Palestinian state hanging over them. Traumatic events and their processing are at the heart of the modern Palestinian sense of life. The sense of loss – of family, friends, the former home, village, possessions, the orchard – and the fading memories of what was lost. It is all connected to Palestinian film as well as, in many cases, the double identity – into the second and third generations – of those who had to leave their land and are not even allowed to visit it anymore. For an exhaustive chronology of Palestinian films, see this entry.

4 The first “film period”: the early years, 1935-1948

There is little literature on the history of Palestinian film; only in the last twenty years have publications appeared. In a widely cited study, Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi (2008) make a classification into four periods. Chloë Op de Beeck also uses this classification. We follow that classification below, also using Op de Beeck for the description of the periods, but adding a fifth period from around 2005. From the emergence of Palestinian cinema in 1935 until the “Nakba,” the term used by Palestinians for the mass expulsion in 1948, documentaries were made primarily. The first was a short documentary made by Ibrahim Hassan Sirhan in 1935: a clip of Prince Saud visiting Jerusalem. However, most of them have been lost and thus cannot be studied. On the grounds that so little has survived from this period, and also from the second, this part of Gertz and Khleifi’s classification has been criticized. By necessity, their reconstruction is based largely on film reviews and interviews, in the absence of the original material.

5 The second period: ‘the time of silence’, 1948-1967

During this period, almost no films were made due to the high level of violence, the military rule over the Palestinians in Israel, and the desolate situation in which the Palestinians outside Israel found themselves. Hence, this period is also called “the epoch of silence” (Gertz & Khleifi). With the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, urban life in the coastal strip disappeared almost completely, more than 350 villages and urban neighborhoods were wiped out. After 1948, a cultural lull, as it were, fell in which also affected cinemas and thus film production. The first to break this silence were the intellectuals, writers and poets. Only then did political organizations emerge: Fatah in 1958, the PLO in the 1960s.

6 The third period: struggles and documentaries, 1968-1982

In this third period, Palestinian organizations discovered the influence that images could exert and used film as a means of reaching the masses. The films were primarily “revolutionary” in nature and dedicated to the liberation of Palestine. After the Six Day War in 1967, the PLO established its own film department, the Palestine Film Unit (PFU; later Palestine Cinema Institute (PCI)). Film aimed to document the struggle, justify the Palestinian position, and also influence public opinion in the West (Gertz & Khleifi, 2008: 22-4). In 1970, after much violence, the framework of the PLO and its sub-organizations had to leave Jordan for Lebanon. There, too, film fell under the control of the political organizations and was not seen as a cultural and creative expression, even though there were filmmakers who worked to upgrade it and there were relationships with the PLO culture department led by Ismael Shammout. During this period, over sixty Palestinian documentary films were made, most in the four years from 1973 to 1977. The well-known Jean-Luc Godard collaborated on some of them. Thus, for a long time, Palestinian film was virtually synonymous with documentary film. The titles of these films reflect that: By Soul and Blood (1971), Why We Plant Roses, Why We Carry Weapons (1973), The Guns Will Never Keep Quiet (1973), The Guns are Unified (1974). In fact, the filmmakers could only report on the political situation and life in the refugee camps because they were funded by the political organizations (Shafik, 2001: 519). Moreover, the quality of these documentaries was often poor due to the limited technical background of the filmmakers and the limited resources they had (Alexander, 2005: 154).
The only feature film made in this third period was Return to Haifa (1981/1982) by Kassem Hawal, originally from Iraq. It would also be the last to be made under the auspices of the PLO in Lebanon.

Good sources on Palestinian film during this period are:

  • Nadia Yaqub (2018, see literature review). Here and here two informative interviews with her.
  • Gertz & Khleifi (2008, idem).
  • Kaleem Hawa (oktober 2020, idem). On the PFU and its contacts with armed struggles in Vietnam, Angola, Cuba, the left-wing student movement in Europe, and communist parties in France and Italy.

7 The fourth period: diaspora, creative film, 1982-2000/2005

This period begins with increasing pressure on the Palestinian population in the occupied territories. It is also the time when the Lebanon War (1982) and the first Palestinian popular uprising (1987-1989) fall. Nevertheless, even during this time, Palestinian cinema has developed and interest in it, seen over the entire period, is even increasing. In the 1990s, film production begins to increase (see also the table below). There are more women filmmakers and facilities such as training courses for directors and other fields within the film industry are created. There are more films with personal expression and using modern techniques.

With the expulsion of the Palestinian resistance led by the PLO, first from Jordan in 1970 and ten years later from Lebanon (to Tunisia), the physical resistance lost its bases of operations on the borders of the Jewish state. A process set in whereby the PLO turned away from resistance and struggle and eventually in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA), turned into a diplomatic and bureaucratic machinery. With this, militant Palestinian film also lost its basis. Filmmakers and PLO/PA moved away from each other. A different visual culture emerged in the occupied territories.

In the 1980s there was already more room for innovations. Often commenting in a more implicit way on the situation in which Palestinians find themselves. Michel Khleifis, who made his first film with European funding, contributed to this with Wedding in Galilee (1987). Rashid Masharawi has been very influential from the 1980s onwards and especially Elia Suleiman with his more individualistic style. A recurring aspect with this new generation of directors is that they want to document Palestinian life. In the words of Edward Said “In fact, the whole history of the Palestinian struggle has to do with the desire to be visible”.

The outbreak of the First Intifada in 1987 brings about a cinematic turning point, in that Palestinians gain more access to film producers and media. As it becomes too dangerous for journalists to film during army operations in the occupied territories, international television networks distribute video cameras to the Palestinian population to film events “on the ground”. Palestinian film companies are established, often with the intervention of European or American companies, which can offer basic audiovisual training. From the 1990s onwards, Palestinian cinema is gaining international recognition. Palestinian filmmakers have more resources and some of them receive training abroad. Elia Suleiman is probably the most famous. The number of films also increases, as mentioned above, certainly from 1995 onwards, partly due to co-financing with Western producers. Female filmmakers are given more opportunities and make films that are successful both in Israel/Palestine and internationally. But total production still remains modest.

8 The fifth period: 2000/2005-present

Around the beginning of the 21st century, a fifth period in Palestinian cinema seems to be emerging. In addition to some continuing trends, such as the focus on Western audiences and film market, there are some differences compared to the previous periods:

  1. The steadily increasing number of co-productions often involve funding from multiple sources: besides Palestinian, Israeli and/or Western, also from other countries/worlds;
  2. The number of films is exploding, for both documentaries and fiction films, and among them there are many “shorts” especially from young artists (in connection with 5 below).
  3. There is more variety in terms of applied film techniques and styles such as animation and science fiction, respectively, with as examples: The Wanted 18 and Nation Estate, and also more films with an expressive, highly personal slant.
  4. In terms of content, it is more often about “modern” Palestinian life. But sometimes films reflect on the past, in particular on the then stronger popular resistance. Example of the former: Bar Bahar (In Between); and of the latter: Naila and the Uprising.
  5. Also more “own” facilities such as training and support for directors and other professions within the film industry. In conjunction, the number of young filmmakers is also increasing.
  6. Growing interest in film among the Palestinian public. The success of the annual Palestine Cinema Days at various locations in the West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza and Israel is testimony to this. These not only feature Palestinian films, but also international cinema.
Period Docu long Docu short Fiction long Fiction short Total
1935 t/m 1948 0 0 0 0 0
1948 t/m 1967 0 0 0 0 0
1968 t/m 1982 9 9 6 0 24
1983 t/m 2000 35 14 13 5 67
2001 t/m 2010 135 108 29 63 335
2011 t/m 2020* 226 229 80 111 646
Totaal 405 360 128 179 1.072

* Figures based on the films registered in the database on 30-11-2020.
Source: Margot Heijnsbroek; based on an initial, nearly complete inventory (30/11/2020) of the palestinecinema database

As mentioned above, almost all films from the period 1935 – 1948 have been lost. In the period 1948 – 1967, almost no films were made. It is possible that in the future some films will surface from unreleased Israeli archives.

Year Docu Fiction Total
2016 39 16 55
2017 60 24 84
2018 51 13 64
2019 62 11 73
2020 19 9 28

Source: Margot Heijnsbroek, see above

A striking feature of the figures is the explosive increase in production in the period 2001 – 2010, which continues into the second decade. Between 2001 and 2010, the high shares of short films among both fiction films and documentaries stand out. The period 2011-2020 shows a strong increase in the number of fiction films, both relatively and in absolute numbers, and a relatively large increase in the number of short documentaries and fiction films. The explanation for the latter probably lies in the large influx of young directors, which in turn is related to the higher supply of training and support. This period also saw the emergence of important supporting institutions, such as the Qattan Foundation, the FilmLab: Palestine, Shashat and the Palestine Film Foundation. The fact that production will be lower in 2020 is undoubtedly related to the Corona epidemic.

In April 2020, UNESCO articulated the success of Palestinian cinema as follows: ‘In the last 10 years, Palestinian films have achieved significant success and recognition in major international venues. In 2018, Palestine had its first-ever official pavilion at the Cannes Festival’. Which does not mean that there are no more structural problems, see below.

9 Cinema in Israel, in occupied territory, in the diaspora


Palestinian filmmakers in Israel face various forms of official and informal discrimination. Regarding government policy towards the minority of Israeli Palestinians, three aspects are relevant in this regard. First, since 1948, there has been an effort to make Palestinian history less visible. Second, there is a hostility to expressions of Palestinian identity. Further, more to the Western public, there is the policy goal of creating a positive image of the Jewish state, which allows for occasional promotion of Palestinian cultural products within that negative framework. Illustrative of the cramped approach that results is the Suha Arraf affair that directed Villa Touma and refused to present it as “Israeli” (the state of Israel had co-financed). The film was hardly political and hardly controversial even in Israel, but nevertheless: ‘I have been blacklisted in Israel from receiving any funding … some heads of film funds called me a prostitute and a suicide bomber in the press.’ In this interview with Suha Arraf about Villa Touma she describes an aspect of the Palestinian feeling about life: ‘The whole film is symbolic to the Palestinian situation, and the frozen situation they’re in – the frozen peace process, the status quo of the occupation and the refugee camps in the region. It isn’t an all-out official war, nor is it a time of peace; it is like a haemorrhage of war, a trickle of war that drains one out slowly.’ In recent years, right-wing governments led by Likud have tightened the reins on critical artistic expression. Despite this, many critical films are being produced precisely in Israel by Palestinian and Jewish-Israeli directors. Such as Town on a wire (2015). Two examples of films by or about Israeli Palestinians are: Bar Bahar (2017) and Invisibles (2015).

Occupied territory: the West Bank

The situation for filmmaking in this area has improved over the last decade. The initial situation was bad. The three million Palestinians in the West Bank (including occupied East Jerusalem) are almost all herded together into small areas that are difficult to reach between them. Poverty, travel restrictions and actions by the Israeli army and collaborating Palestinian security forces (also) created an art and film hostile environment. Nevertheless, it appears (see table) that there has been a significant increase in the production of Palestinian films since the beginning of this century. Many films set in occupied territory have been made with foreign support or produced abroad. Increasingly, films of occupation-related events are being made with small cameras or cell phones. The cell phone camera in particular has become a powerful tool of peaceful resistance to the oppression that accompanies occupation. The recordings made generate a globally accessible, public archive of army and police actions, such as the routine arrest of children and the demolition of schools and homes. A very well-known example is 5 Broken Cameras (2012) by Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, a documentary about the protests in the village of Bil’in in the West Bank. Examples of films/movies from or about the West Bank are:
200 meters (2020), Inch’Allah (2012), In the Image: Palestinian Women Capture the Occupation (2014) and The Sun and the Looking Glass (2020).

Occupied Territory: The Gaza Strip

The situation for filmmaking is much worse in the Gaza Strip due to war violence, poverty and isolation. To illustrate, here is a chronology of the violence that has befallen the population. Nevertheless, the number of films is also growing here, mostly documentaries, but also some fiction films. A recent example of the latter:
Gaza mon Amour, 2020. Tarzan Nasser, Arab Nasser. Countries involved in the production: Palestine, France, Germany, Portugal and Qatar. 87 min. Language: Arabic
An example in the documentary sphere (also contains shocking images), Where should the birds fly? 

The Diaspora

Meanwhile, a considerable Palestinian film production has also emerged in the diaspora – especially in the Middle East, North America and Europe. Indeed, almost all well-known Palestinian directors live abroad, or have lived there. Among them are Elia Suleiman, Hany Abu-Assad, Cherien Dabis and Michel Khleifi. Of this list, Hany Abu-Assad is a Palestinian Dutchman, who also does live in the US. One of the reasons for the large role of the diaspora is the lack of support from the Palestinian Authority. As a result, filmmakers often turn by necessity to sponsors in Europe and the United States.

Infrastructure in Occupied Territories

Cinemas are an important link in any film culture. Palestinian and Jewish film cultures have been largely separate from the beginning. The golden age of cinema attendance by Palestinians was in the first half of the twentieth century. Beginning in 1948, with the victory of the Jewish fighting groups, the decline began in the Jewish-controlled territory, the State of Israel. That decline continued after the Israeli army’s conquest of what is now called “the occupied territories. Several cinemas were later destroyed during the first and second Palestinian popular uprisings (from 1987 and 2000 respectively). This reinforces the difficulty for Palestinian cinema to reach its own audience, the Palestinians who are at stake, in its own country. The declining freedom of movement of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip did the rest. Cinemas, to the extent that they still exist, are suffering a languishing existence. In recent years, however, there seems to have been a revival of film interest, as evidenced by the annual Palestine Cinema Days.

The ‘disappeared’ Palestinian film archive

With the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, film making under the aegis of Palestinian agencies largely came to an end. After the PLO transferred its headquarters to Tunis, films were only sponsored on a limited scale. Much of the film archive in Beirut appeared to have disappeared. The search for lost films led to the screening of They Do Not Exist (from 1974) in 2003. The film Kings and Extras: Digging for a Palestinian Image (2004) by Azza El-Hassan deals with this search. Even in 2020, three rediscovered films were screened again. Quite recently it became clear that the archive is owned by Israel. Access is restricted, Palestinians are excluded.

10 Training and other infrastructure


Below is a non-exhaustive overview of training.

  1.  De Qattan Foundation, their Culture and Arts Program, and within it: and en
  2. Het FilmLab: Palestine:
  3. Shashat. Focuses on women filmmakers.
  4. The Dal Al Kalima University in Bethlehem. O.a.: en
  5. The Bir Zeit University. A.k.a.

Other support

Some other organizations important to the Palestinian “film industry”.

  1. Palestine Film Foundation (PFF). The PFF organized the first London Palestine Film Festival in 1999 and was established as ‘PFF’ in 2004. Purpose: to organize the festival, to promote Palestinian cinema and to archive audiovisual material about Palestine.
  2. The national Palestine Film Institute (PFI). Creating networks for the purpose of funding, promotion, advising, making contacts. Also the preservation of audiovisual heritage. See also under ‘Infrastructure’.
  3. The Palestine Film Platform, created by the PFI. Through the PFP platform films, including historically interesting films, are streamed (for free).
  4. The ‘Filmlab: Palestine’ was founded in 2014 as a non-commercial organization focused on Palestinian youth in refugee camps in Jordan, to enable them to connect their personal history with Palestinian collective memory through cinematic means. The organization has become a pillar of the Palestinian film scene: ‘It offers a suitable workspace for Palestinian filmmakers, with production equipment and post-production facilities’.
  5. The quarterly magazine Bidoun (since 2004), aims to build a bridge in the field of art and culture – and thus also film – between the Palestinian diaspora and the Middle East.

Infrastructure, legal and other

UNESCO is working in cooperation with the European Union and the Ministry of Culture of the Palestinian Authority to strengthen the infrastructure for Palestinian cinema. This is based on the observation that, “While Palestine has no shortage of talented filmmakers or powerful stories, the country is in dire need of an improved legal environment to help the national film industry develop and thrive. UNESCO lists the following points:

  1. The absence of a legal framework (protection of intellectual property, etc.)
  2. Lack of data and archives regarding Palestinian cinema, due to the absence of copyright regulation and a national registration system.

These and other tasks (see above) should be assigned to the Palestine Film Institute as an independent implementing body.

11 Outreach to/collaboration with foreign countries

A recent Study by Eibhlin Priestley shows that of the 55 films and documentaries from the MENA (Middle East/North Africa) region that were most successful in the West (Priestley looks particularly at the US) in the period 2009-2019, a strikingly large number originated in or related to Palestine/Israel. The vast majority of those films were made in co-production with Europeans or Americans. This is entirely true in terms of financing with the notable exception of the American Oscar nominated film Omar, which was almost 100% Palestinian funded. Lack of government support and professional infrastructure, as well as the desire to market films to a Western audience, are the reasons for this. The resulting dependence, which applies to the entire MENA film region, has significant impact on artistic products, often on how that story is told and sometimes on the story itself. See also Untold Stories (Irit Neidhardt) which elaborates on the role of European bodies. It should be borne in mind that Europe and the U.S. offer the most screening possibilities and that the makers see the importance of reaching many people there with information from a Palestinian point of view. This in itself is not a disqualification for this type of film. There are also young Palestinian filmmakers who want to make films from their own Palestinian identity, with a more personal expression, and aimed at a Palestinian audience.


  1. Nurith Gertz, George Khleifi. Palestinian Cinema: Landscape, Trauma and Memory. Edinburgh University Press, 2008. “The first, serious comprehensive study of Palestinian film. (first published as Landscape in Mist: Space and Memory in Palestinian Cinema) in Hebrew in 2005 by Am Oved and the Open University, Tel Aviv.)
  2. Hamid Dabashi, ed. Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema. London/New York: Verso, 2006 (met o.a. Edward Said (postuum), Ella Shohat, Hamid Naficy, Joseph Massa en de filmmakers Annemarie Jacir, Michel Khleifi, and Omar al-Qattan (filmmakers, critics and scholars discuss the extraordinary social and artistic significance of Palestinian film).
    1. (bespreking).
  3. Chloë Op de Beeck, ‘Palestijnse Cinema Nationale cinema in een staatloze natie.’ Masterproef Filmstudies en Visuele Cultuur, Universiteit Antwerpen, 2011
  4. Nadia Yaqub, Palestinian Cinema in the Days of Revolution. Austin, University of Texas Press, 2018.
    1. Interview met Yaqub (2018).
    2. Interview met Yaqub (2018).
  5. ‘Find a Story in a Grain of Dust’: the Search for Palestine’s Lost Cinema. Nathan Geyer, 28 november 2018. Over de zoektocht naar verdwenen films.
  6. Edward W. Said, “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Critical Inquiry 26, no. 2 (Winter 2000): 184. Ook: Edward W. Said, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Social Text no. 1 (Winter 1979): 7–58
  7. Rona Sela, The Genealogy of Colonial Plunder and Erasure: Israel’s Control over Palestinian Archives. Social Semiotics 28, no. 2 (2018)
  8. Kaleem Hawa. From Palestine to the World, the Militant Film of the PLO. The New York Review, oktober 2020.
  9. Palestinian Cinema: A Guardian of Palestinian Identity, Doomed by Hope. Abir Abyad. Falls Church, VA Bachelor Degree, University of Virginia, 2014
  10. Suleiman, Elia. “Interviews -a Cinema of Nowhere.” Journal of Palestine Studies. 29.2 (2000): 95.
  11. White, Rob. “Sad Times: An Interview With Elia Suleiman”. University of California Press, Film Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Fall 2010): pp. 38-45.
  12. Untold Stories. Irit Neidhardt. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture © 2010 (University of Westminster, London), Vol. 7(2): 31-50. ISSN 1744-6708 (Print); 1744-6716 (Online)

Websites/search terms

  1. met (Palestine Film Platform)
  2. (Londen). “The Palestine Film Foundation (PFF) is a nonprofit initiative which seeks to develop an audience for and to encourage the development of a Palestinian cinema and cinema related to Palestine.”
  3. Filmlab: Palestine, “It aims at placing Palestine on the map of the International film industry and movie landscape.”
  4. jadaliyya. Bijvoorbeeld:
  5. Middle East Eye, Palestinian movies.
  8. (Internet Movie Database)
  9. met o.a. zoekfunctie:
  10. (Annemarie Jacir 27 February 2007)
  11. “Bidoun magazine is a quarterly publication founded in 2004 with the intention of filling a gaping hole in the arts and culture coverage of the Middle East and its Diaspora.”
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