Opinion: Marvel’s character Sabra sparks controversy among Arabs around the world

By Samaher AbuRabah, Staff Reporter

Elias Gonzalez

At Disney’s D23 Expo last month, Marvel announced “Sabra” as a new movie character to debut in the 2024 film “Captain America: New World Order.” Arabs around the world have responded to this announcement with frustration, saying this character is an extension of Western bias toward Israel and disregards Palestinian hardships and history.

Sabra first appeared in the Marvel comic “Incredible Hulk 250” in a cameo before making a full appearance in “Incredible Hulk 256” as a worker for Mossad, Israel’s secret service agency that is responsible for human intelligence collection, covert action and counterterrorism. Its main focus is on Arab countries and organizations, and the agency watches to detect any possible threats.

Sabra’s character is dependent on her contribution to the Mossad, which has presented her as a confused individual second-guessing what her true purpose is. Her inner conflict comes from whether or not it is morally correct to work for the organization that she does, or if her actions in the Mossad are justified.

In scans of the comic circulating social media, Sabra and the Hulk are fighting about the death of a young Palestinian boy. The Hulk tells Sabra that her selfishness in not sharing land is what caused the boy’s death, a thought the character reflects upon in an inner monologue.

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

Other questionable aspects of the comic are racial stereotyping and disrespectful mentions of Islam, generalizing the religion and cultures of Arab people.

Instead of referring to the Arabs in the comics as “Palestinians,” the book refers to them as Arabs, marginalizing and restricting all Arabs to be confined into one non-specific group. The Palestinians mentioned in this comic are also referred to as “Arab assassins” and “terrorists.”

More controversy about this character is the name “Sabra.” Although “Sabra” can mean a Jewish person born in Israel — before the Nakba in 1948 in Palestine — the name is also shared with the Sabra and Shatila Massacre of 1982, making the character’s debut even more controversial.

Marvel’s announcement of the forthcoming film came around the 40th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, when thousands of Palestinian refugees were killed in Lebanon.

Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon where as many as 3,500 were brutally massacred by right-wing Lebanese-Christian militia under the orders of the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF.

Israel had full control over the refugee camps and bordered the ends of the camps to lock Palestinians in, then opened the gates to allow the militia group to enter at night and murder them. The IDF provided bulldozers to create mass graves for Palestinians who were killed, and it was estimated that around 2,000 to 3,500 Palestinians who fled from ethnic cleansing in Palestine were murdered. 

The Institute for Middle East Understanding, an American pro-Palestinian organization, wrote on Twitter about the upcoming film debut of the Marvel character.

“By glorifying the Israeli army & police, Marvel is promoting Israel’s violence against Palestinians & enabling the continued oppression of millions of Palestinians living under Israel’s authoritarian military rule,” the tweet said.

The offensive quotes, stereotypes and the incorrect representation of Arabs have allowed viewers on social media to question how this outdated comic will transfer into a present-day movie.

Following the backlash, Marvel said in a statement that the character would be “freshly imagined for the screen and today’s audience,” and the “filmmakers are taking a new approach,” but Marvel has yet to respond to other comments and concerns regarding the erasure of Palestinian history and identity through Marvel Studios.

Although Western bias toward Israel is normalized with the billions of dollars provided by the U.S. government for Israel’s military aid, the Palestinian population around the world is set aside by Marvel with this character and the harmful stereotypes and morals attached to her.

Although Marvel has promised a reimagined perspective of Sabra, seeing the film debut of this character announced in 2022 for a forthcoming movie is uncomfortable and shocking. Being otherwise in an age of self-determination and support for the oppressed around the world, in this case Marvel is now doing just the opposite through its unspoken support of Israel with Sabra’s character, disregarding the millions of Palestinians