UN makes a drama out of Gaza crisis

Israel’s attack on an aid warehouse that was a lifeline for Palestinians has been powerfully reconstructed for the stage. But such controversial material is leaving audiences divided. Donald Macintyre reports

Her face larger than life on the big screen at the back of the stage, Jodie Clarke explains just what was happening at her workplace on 15 January 2009, and how the military she was constantly in touch with were insisting it was not. “My dear, I am standing in my building,” she says she told the person at the other end of the phone. “It is collapsing around me. There is a huge fire. You are hitting the UN compound.”

The Australian warehouse manager goes on calmly to describe how she crawled under the wheels of a fuel truck to push away a burning a “softball-sized” chunk of white phosphorus that would have caused a devastatingly lethal explosion if it had ignited the vehicle.

Matter of fact as it is, Ms Clarke’s account is powerfully dramatic. Appropriately so, since it is now the centrepiece of what by any standards is one of the most unusual dramas to be staged in English in 2009. All the more so since the author, sole actor and director, is Chris Gunness, the chief spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency. And especially so given the unwieldily titled but highly watchable Building Understanding: Epitaph of a Dead Warehouse is intended for Israeli audiences, whose military was responsible for the artillery bombardment of UNRWA headquarters in central Gaza City during the last week of the invasion.

Provocative dramaturgy on the fringe-theatre circuit may seem rather beyond the remit of a UN press officer, however senior. But Mr Gunness decided last spring that this was the best medium with which to engage the Israeli public, among whom, as the body responsible for the welfare of almost a million of Gaza’s refugees, his employer UNRWA is, to put it mildly, far from universally popular, on the impact of Operation Cast Lead.

Mr Gunness, a Briton and one-time BBC correspondent turned diplomat, became internationally well-known during last winter’s war as he took to the airwaves and regularly protested about UN installations in Gaza, including the warehouse, coming under fire from the Israeli Defence Forces.

It was on the strength of one such appearance on a satellite channel that Tami Berger from Bezalel, Israel’s most venerable art school, invited him to take part in a one-day event on “storage-space” ranging from the human womb to a TV network’s archive. Mr Gunness thought of the UNRWA warehouse and with the backing of his bosses and the help of his Israeli assistant, Yael Azgad, sat down and wrote Epitaph.

On stage throughout the 40-minute performance, Mr Gunness plays – however improbably – the eponymous warehouse, announcing early on that he is “the victim of an excruciatingly painful fire that burned me down”. Most of the goods coming into Gaza, including food, medicine, basic health items and other humanitarian supplies “pass through me”, the warehouse explains, adding, “I am a lifeline to a society behind bars”.

Unsurprisingly, the play has generated controversy, especially since Jewish international judge Richard Goldstone’s UN-commissioned report on the Gaza operation, which excoriated the attack on the compound and triggered outrage through much of Israel; so much so that a planned performance at Tel Aviv’s Hasimta theatre last week, which was to have been followed by a panel discussion with a Israeli government representative, was cancelled. There is no sign that the theatre’s creative staff were responsible for the axing. The theatre director, Avi Gibson Bar El, referred enquiries this week to the Tel Aviv muncipality, which in turn refused two requests for comment.

Epitaph was similarly pulled – this time at the last minute – from Acre’s al Laz theatre, back in August. Mony Yousef, who runs the city’s arts festival who saw then recommended the play to the theatre, broke the news to Mr Gunness after he had arrived in the northern Israeli city to set up. Asked about the sudden U-turn, Mr Yousef suggested, somewhat bizzarely, that the problem was, in fact, that the play had not been provocative enough. “It was not theatre, it was not very radical,” he insisted. “There was no pressure.”

So far, therefore, Mr Gunness has been able to stage his play only twice for the Israeli audiences for whom it is intended. In Tel Aviv, 20 people (out of an audience of more than 100) walked out early on. One man rose to his feet halfway through the performance to denounce what he saw as the drama’s frontal onslaught on Israel’s military.

Mr Gunness defused the interruption by promising to discuss his concerns. At the end, he walked down to the man’s seat and pointed out that the show was not saying the bombardment was deliberate, or that it was a war crime. The man was apparently placated but Mr Gunness conceived the idea that performances should from then on feature a chair for audience members to come up on stage and engage in debate if they wanted.

The other performance was for a class at Sapir College in Sderot, the western Negev town which has borne the brunt of Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza. Although the students, including former soldiers, were on an elective course studying Palestinian refugees – and therefore more familiar with UNRWA’s work than the average Israeli – they were initially sceptical. “There was a lot of ‘Yes, but’,” said lecturer Maya Rosenfeld. “But in the end I think the whole idea of watching an UNRWA official doing this impressed them.”

For Mr Gunness, the show is partly about repairing the image of the UN, once famously dismissed as “Oom Schmoom” by Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Israelis who dislike the UN may sometimes scrawl “Unwanted Nobodies” on its cars. Mr Gunness says the UN is “expected to stay put when there is danger and conflict and it does”. He believes that audiences who engage with Epitaph find that “our values are ones that a lot of Israelis identify with, including giving help to those who need it most”.

But was the highly sensitive subject of the Gaza War the best subject to begin this process of engagement and image building? “If I contact Israelis-journalists and others about other things we do, development and so on, they understandably glaze over; but if I say look, there’s a play with a pint-sized Australian woman from UNRWA who risked her life to stop an even worse conflagration in the middle of the war, they sit up and listen.”

Pointing out that Israel’s Foreign Ministry had encouraged UNRWA to engage more with the Israeli public, he adds: “Like Daniel in the biblical den, I’m ready to take this to the most leonine audiences anywhere in Israel.”

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