It may be a one-sided play but what's worse is that it's no good


The Siege does not make comfortable viewing. It is an angry, loud and hectic play. Five men wield assault rifles, shout, bleed, embrace, argue and dream inside the imagined confines of the Church of the Nativity. They have taken refuge there (or taken hostages, depending on your view of the incident), amid fighting with Israeli forces during the second intifada.

The men retreat into a room, where they are given sanctuary by the priests who remain in the church, and then spend the next 39 days stuck there, until they sign an agreement to be let out and exiled. Some went to Gaza, others to Europe. They have not been able to return. The Siege is being put on by the Freedom Theatre, a dramatic organisation based in Jenin, which focuses on "cultural resistance" to the occupation of Palestine. It is inspired by interviews with some of the survivors from the incident.

The Siege is currently touring Britain, and I attended the press night at Battersea Arts Centre. The decision to stage the show has been controversial. Zionist groups, including the Zionist Federation and Sussex Friends of Israel, have protested against the play, handing out leaflets on its first night in Battersea and holding a vigil for the civilians who were killed by some of the Palestinian men who hid inside the church.

The ZF argued that the play amounted to a "white-washing of the second intifada", and questioned whether it should have received £14,000 of funding from the Arts Council of England.

"All the information about the play suggests that it will give a highly politicised and one-sided account of the men at the heart of the siege," they said in a statement.

The only purpose of the play is to highlight the cause of Palestine

They in turn were criticised by Artists for Palestine, who pointed out that the Zionist groups were criticising the play without having seen it, part of a "vociferous pro-Israel lobby that smears all Palestinians as terrorists and antisemites".

Having watched the play, I can confirm that it is indeed highly politicised and one-sided. This isn't a particularly controversial view, it makes no attempt to be anything else: it is an unashamedly political polemic. The Israelis exist pretty much exclusively as tanks and loudspeakers on a projector screen. The other people stuck in the church are mentioned only in passing. The play is almost entirely about five Palestinian men, with guns.

Sharon Bannister, president of the Manchester Jewish Representative Council, saw the play last week and said it appeared to be more sympathetic to the Christian clergy caught up in the conflict than the Palestinian cause. This is arrant nonsense. The clergy only appear in passing. It is a play about the Palestinian cause, that is its purpose.

There has been some controversy over the fact these men are described by the company as fighters rather than terrorists. In truth I have no idea who they are, because the play didn't tell me. They aren't named and their political affiliations and background are not mentioned. The question of whether any of them had indeed killed innocent civilians prior to being trapped in the church, a fairly salient detail, is entirely overlooked.

The real problem with this play, though, is that it's not very good. The drama improves as it goes on and does successfully generate a sense of what it must have been like to be trapped inside the church; the hunger, the fear and the despair. One is also given some insight into the mindset of these men, a deep-seated, almost nihilistic rage at their occupiers and a longing for normality. But without a proper explanation of who these people are, where they come from and how they ended up there, without proper exploration of character and personality, it winds up being a rather shallow experience, marked by a lot of shouting and banging and philippics on the iniquities of the Zionist oppressor.

Stories about the conflict in Israel and Palestine work best when they focus on the human aspect, cutting through the rage and the politics to introduce us to real people with whom we can empathise. But these nameless combatants don't do much to enrich one's understanding of the conflict. People will describe it as powerful, but they will be in danger of confusing anger and power. The former must be well-channelled to achieve the latter. Many in the audience seemed to enjoy the play, but I think this was primarily a case of confirmation bias. If you went into the room already furious about the occupation of the West Bank and convinced Zionism is the root of all ills that have befallen the Palestinians, then the play fed that sense of injustice. It didn't ask many hard questions - had these men killed innocent civilians? Is armed resistance to occupation counterproductive? But it did affirm a sense that a great wrong is being done to the Palestinian people.

Afterwards I sat on a panel for a Q&A session on representations of the conflict in the British media, chaired by Jon Snow. This was a fairly depressing experience. It followed the rules of all Q&A sessions on the Israel Palestine conflict: people rarely ask actual questions, instead using the spotlight to angrily express their own point of view. Meanwhile the trolls in the crowd feel free to interrupt everyone else and hector the panellists.

Really the only takeaway from the entire evening was a sense of Palestine's inchoate fury.

In the papers the next day I read that the troubling news that the new Israeli deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, had announced that "this land is ours, all of it is ours". The despair and anger of Palestinians is not hard to fathom, but in this play as in the real world, one wonders if it might sometimes be better channelled.

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