In Arabic, the word for rebellion (infantida), means literally a ‘flooding’. It is the name given to specific periods of Palestinian resistance against Israeli invasion within the context of the Israel-Palestine “conflict” (a term fraught with difficulty which the writer and director of The Siege, Nabil Al-Raee, dismisses as mere euphemism for ‘occupation’). The Freedom Theatre floods the imagination of their audience with a eulogy to resistance, yet by telling a story of six Palestinian soldiers besieged in a place of Christian sanctuary by Israeli forces for 39 days, they also speak of a siege that has so far lasted 67 years, and shows no sign of relenting anytime soon.
The siege in question took place during the Second Infantida in April 2002, when Israel launched the largest military offensive against the Palestinian occupied territories since the Six-Day War in 1967, invading Bethlehem and surrounding a small group of resistance fighters who took refuge in The Church of the Nativity. Over the following weeks, the Israeli army shelled the church, damaging the ancient site and resulting in the deaths of 2 civilians, denied humanitarian aid access, and reported that armed terrorists had captured the church and were holding members of its clergy hostage (a story which was uncritically repeated in Western media at the time).
Crucially, Al-Raee’s play does not focus on the Israeli combatants outside the church, but on the untold stories of six Palestinians inside, drawn from interviews with the soldiers themselves, all of who are now in exile across Europe and in Gaza. Darting between real-time action and the individual testimonies of the fighters, The Siege inserts a dramatic palimpsest into the lacuna left open by Western media coverage of the event. Though not devoid of political agenda, this is an attempt to redress, through art, the misrepresentation of the nature of Palestinian resistance in the media. It is not, as some audience members present at the Q&A session after tonight’s performance at the Battersea Arts Centre seemed to believe, a vindication of violence as a justified means of resistance.
For all the bravura of their characters in confronting a very real, albeit largely invisible, enemy, the six actors capture the subtle sense of their struggle’s futility in the face of an occupying force backed by all the major powers of the Western world. In light of this, what appears initially as a military objective in holding the church reveals itself in the course of the play as something far more vital: the core human values that drive people to protect their homes, to survive, to return to their families, and to build and lead normal lives.
But as the former political editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Martin Bright, suggested in this evening’s Q&A, there is an uneven distribution of empathy on either side of the conflict, and it seems likely that the play would fall on deaf Israeli ears. While we, in the West, feeling culpable and confused, have the luxury of empathising with either, the poor Jewish mother in Sderot whose children are suffering psychological trauma as a result of near-constant bombing by Hamas, does not have that luxury. If this evening’s Q&A session was anything to go by, then we are too intractable in our entrenched ideologies to relieve her plight any more than we are able to cover Israel-Palestine objectively (or, for that matter, to talk about art in relation to politics without the discussion descending into a shooting match).
The Freedom Theatre is in a unique position to alter this absurd embargo on conversation. Based at the heart of the Jenin Refugee Camp on the West Bank, they have already established a theatre school that provides three-year training in acting for its students (not to mention an alternative path to violence as a form of resistance). Now, with The Siege launching their first ever UK tour, they have begun to open a dialogue that by-passes media bias and gets to the root of what it is to live in a divided nation under the constant threat of military invasion. This is not a clarion call to arms; it is an invitation to think, to learn, to share in the experience of the untold story.