Jeremy Hardy isn't exactly your typical action hero. Short and boyish, he even hangs his bag across his body like a schoolboy. Definitely not the sort of chap one expects to see risking life and limb. But what Hardy lacks in physical stature, he more than makes up for in commitment. He's been one of our most recognisable political comedians for almost 20 years now, though it's perhaps the voice, rather than the face, which sticks in the mind: Hardy is big on radio. Few listeners to Radio 4 would fail to spot his dry, flat tones as regularly purveyed on The News Quiz and I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue.
Still, you wouldn't exactly grant him - nor, one suspects, would he covet - celebrity status. So a documentary entitled Jeremy Hardy v The Israeli Army is somewhat unexpected. It came as something of a surprise to Hardy, too: he was approached by the film-maker Leila Sansour to front a documentary about the work of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian organisation that brings internationals into the country in a strategy of non-violent protest and resistance.
The press notes point out that Hardy was 98th on Sansour's list. The director, in a rather endearing and naively optimistic move, had already approached the likes of Madonna, Ewan McGregor and Sting.
"Yes, I was quite insulted when I found that out," Hardy says, so quietly I find myself frowning with the effort of listening. "I knew that Leila didn't know who I was but I didn't know I was so far down the list." There's a note of admiration in his voice, though, as he adds: "It must have taken her months."
But the difficulties involved in securing a presenter were nothing compared with the trouble the production was about to enter. Initially, Hardy was keen to make the trip, he says, then the doubts began to creep in. It was his wife who finally persuaded him he should go; his daughter asked him for a promise that he'd stay safe.
"I was very nervous about the whole thing," he recalls. "I nearly didn't go right up until the last minute. In fact, if the plane had been booked for a day later, then I probably wouldn't have, because by then chances are I wouldn't have been able to get into Bethlehem."
While Hardy and the other volunteers were on the plane, the political temperature of the region rocketed: the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he was going to reoccupy the West Bank. Hardy landed in Israel to be met by a very worried-looking director; he knew Sansour was regretting her own promise that he wouldn't be put in any danger.
The film makes no attempt to disguise Hardy's fear: "The first few days I was just really terrified, I was shaking all the time," he nods. "People were telling me: 'Your international status means nothing and they're going to kill you.' One person in a Palestinian camp said 'You're wasting your time here, you're a nuisance to us because we worry about you.' That did my head in. Even Leila's relatives all said, 'You're going to die. This is madness. Your foreign passport counts for nothing, they'll just shoot you.'"
His imagination went into overdrive: "I thought we'd all be in the camps asleep and rockets would be fired and people would die, the bulldozers would come in and the internationals would be able to do nothing."
It didn't help that some of the volunteers openly regarded him with hostile suspicion. "People freak out when they see a camera and they didn't trust that we had the best of intentions. They didn't know who Leila was and they thought it was an intrusion," Hardy recalls. "They were very wary of me because they thought they were going to get shafted. And they could probably tell that the doubt was mutual."
If they couldn't, we certainly can: in the film Hardy twice refers to the activists as 'vainglorious'. And then the bullets began to fly. Real bullets. "Once we'd actually been shot at, I calmed down," Hardy shrugs. "I thought 'at least now I know what we're up against'. The expectation sometimes is worse," he pauses for a sardonic grin, "except if I'd actually been shot, that would have been worse than the expectation, probably." He may have escaped injury but others among the group didn't - one Australian woman spent a year recovering from the stomach wound she suffered.
Hardy thinks that the incident gives the film's audience a different perspective on how such things come about. "People keep imagining that acts of aggression by soldiers are done in the heat of the moment, in panic. There's this sense that whenever armies or police open up or carry out acts of violence it's an overreaction, it's indiscipline. You have to witness such a situation to realise that it can be actually very calm.
"When we were shot at - and mercifully no one died on that occasion - the soldier wasn't even slightly panicked. He had a bunch of hippies standing in front of him on a nice sunny day. He's in an armoured personnel carrier, one minute disdainfully wafting his arm at us to go away. And the next minute he's firing at us."
He changed his mind on the spot about the motivations of his fellow protesters, humbled by their bravery in the face of such violence. He put no pressure on Sansour to edit his own nervous bewilderment out: "It's too easy to fall into this thing about what a scary thing you did, all your mates are impressed and it looks great," he explains.
"But I can't abide the new sexy style of documentary presenter," he adds contemptuously. "The sort that love being photographed in the dark with night vision cameras, pointlessly wearing some disguise." He puts on a serious voice: "I'm wearing special glasses that enable me to see the moon. I'm hiring this child prostitute but don't worry, I'm not going to have sex with her because I'm a good person."
Hardy looks extremely pained when I bring up the occasional moments of humour in the film. At times, I venture, you look on the brink of... "Hysteria, I know," he finishes on my behalf. "It's quite embarrassing," he admits. "It's just that nervous kind of endless babbling. When we were under curfew in the hotel, people would say, 'You realise that's the fifth time you've made that joke'. I was just in a kind of loop, making gags. Everyone was quite patient."
But then, he points out, Bethlehem under siege isn't natural territory for a comedian: "I was expecting straw and children in dressing gowns with tea towels on their heads. It was all very disorientating."
'Jeremy Hardy v The Israeli Army' opens 18 July at the Prince Charles Cinema, London; then nationwideReuse content