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Row breaks out over UK tour of Palestinian play

The play, backed by $22,000 of UK government funding, investigates the 2002 siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
One of the Palestinian fighters holed up at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity for 39 days in 2002 (AFP)

A new play about an infamous siege in the West Bank is due to start touring the UK, sparking a debate over the play’s funding.

The Siege recounts the story of the 39-days in 2002 when armed Palestinian fighters hid out in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, an ancient holy site in the West Bank, alongside some 200 nuns and priests.

The fighters, amongst others, had fled into the church during Operation Defensive Shield, a campaign conducted by the Israeli military during the Second Intifada to try and crack down on suspected Palestinian militants.

The play, which has already toured the West Bank, uses quotes and interviews from some of the surviving fighters, who are now living in exile in Europe.

Put on by the renowned Jenin-based Freedom Theatre, the play is the largest production yet by a Palestinian theatre group to tour the UK. It will feature at 10 major venues throughout the country, beginning in Manchester on 13 May.

However, the tour has run into controversy over its content and funding.

Arts Council England, a taxpayer-funded body, is supporting the upcoming tour to the tune of £15,000 ($22,700) and has already helped to fund performances in the Occupied Territories.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organisation that supports the Jewish community in the UK, expressed concerns over the funding of the play.

“We would be extremely concerned if British taxpayers were funding a play that promoted terrorism as positive and legitimate,” the group said on Saturday.

The news has also provoked an outcry within Israel.

Defending the decision to fund the play, Arts Council England said in a statement that it was not the body’s role “to censor the artists’ message”.

Confirming that it had contributed to funding the play’s tour in the Occupied Territories, Arts Council England said it “also [supports] projects in Israel”.

One of the play’s co-directors, Zoe Lafferty, said the production is “pro-human rights, pro-justice and pro-equality”.

“Our work is trying to talk about the truth of what’s happening on the ground and counter the propaganda that’s constantly being directed at the Palestinians.”

The Israeli army at the time accused the fighters holed up in the church of taking the nuns and priests hostage. The claim was rejected by church officials, who said the men had “not committed any act of violence or abuse of power against the religious community”.

Eight people were killed during the course of the more than one-month siege of the church, which ended with the fighters agreeing to be exiled in Europe without first seeing their families. One man was killed by a sniper while tolling the church bell, while seven others died inside the church from sniper fire.

The latest row over the theatrical dramatisation of the events of more than a decade ago is far from the first to break out over the funding of UK-based cultural activities relating to Israel-Palestine.

In August 2014, during the Israeli military’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip, West London’s Tricycle Theatre refused to host that year’s Jewish Film Festival because the Israeli embassy was a funder.

The artistic director of the theatre, which had hosted the festival on eight previous occasions, said at the time that “given the current conflict in Israel and Gaza, we feel it is inappropriate to accept financial support from any government agency involved”.

The theatre eventually back-tracked and agreed to host the festival after protests outside the venue at which demonstrators complained it was punishing the Jewish community for events occurring far away in the Middle East.

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