In a list of unlikely places to look for peace in the Middle East, the Israeli Defence Force has to come top. But the field of amateur dramatics definitely comes a close second. Enter Combatants for Peace, a group of Israelis and Palestinians who have been trained to fight either in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) or as Palestine's Fatah paramilitaries, but have now put down their guns and together taken to the stage. The group, formed in 2005, perform sketches based on their own experiences of war to promote a "non-violent" resolution to the conflict. Where these theatrical workshops take place is critical to the protest. Most recently, they improvised a scene about Israeli check-points to an audience of Palestinians, Israelis and international activists on a hill-top in the West Bank over-looking an Israeli settlement. They didn't get far before IDF officers stopped the show.
Pitching a group of trained killers-turned-thespians as messengers of peace seems a hard sell: disputes over the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory resolved in one almighty improvisation workshop …? Really? Even allowing for the most obliging of circumstances, it's difficult to see how theatre can pack so much as a glancing punch at figures of real power in Israel, Palestine or anywhere. No matter how powerfully a piece of anti-war drama is scripted or performed, or how important the audience, it takes a leap of faith to see how theatre can genuinely affect the direction of a conflict, particularly when it is pitted against the immovable brawn of the Israeli war machine or a Palestinian committed to martyrdom. But then there's none so zealous as a convert.
Chen Alon, the group's founder, was a major in the IDF. Nour Shehadah, the group's Palestinian head, was a leading Fatah paramilitary. Shot in an assassination attempt by IDF soldiers in the early 90s, he spent five years in an Israeli jail and still lives with his family in Tulkarem, one of the largest refugee camps in the West Bank. Both are now passionately committed to working together towards a "non-violent" resolution to the conflict, citing Martin Luther King and Gandhi as inspirational figures. Group members have fought on opposing sides in the same gun battles; one former IDF officer even interrogated another Palestinian member. All the Israelis in the group served either as conflict soldiers or were stationed at volatile checkpoints, while most of the Palestinian members have spent time in Israeli prisons. Many have lost contact with their families, who now regard them as traitors. And yet the group is growing in number.
The theatrical element is led by Alon, who has worked in the theatre since leaving the army (his military career ended with a six-month stint in Israeli jail for refusing to serve in Gaza in 2002). The group employ a method pioneered by Brazilian director Augusto Boal – "the theatre of the oppressed". With an emphasis on audience participation, their performances aim to find resolutions to political dilemmas by acting them out as scenarios. There is widespread frustration among Israeli and Palestinian peace activists straining to make their voices heard. Home-grown dissenters are being dragged out for public humiliation and punishment by an increasingly right-wing Israeli government that has introduced laws branding activists as traitors who can be punished with prison sentences.
Artists from the Pixies to the Klaxons have cancelled their Tel Aviv performances in protest at the deaths on board the ships attempting to break the blockade of Gaza, while in Israel itself beleaguered liberals are increasingly choosing not to speak out either from fear of the repercussions or straightforward hopelessness. But there is no chance of Combatants for Peace giving up. Speaking from the very pit of the conflict is a group with an absolute belief in the transformative power of empathy and the possibility of resolving conflict without violence. Shehadah says that, despite criticism from within his own community, he would prefer to leave Palestine than stop his work. It's hard to not cheer a sentiment like this.
Accepting the impotence of humanity (in this case, theatre) in the face of government-led conflict would be writing the region off as a lost cause, something too depressing to contemplate. Alon agrees: "We don't have a Gandhi in the Middle East," he says. "There's no Israeli Martin Luther King. So while we wait for one to arrive, we have to do the best we can with what we have."