Sarfraz Manzoor
The Guardian
August 2, 2010 - 12:00am

Nour Shehadah and Chen Alon are both shaven-headed fathers in their forties. Shehadah is Palestinian and he spent five years in an Israeli prison for his activities as a leader of his local Fatah military. Alon is a former combat soldier and major in the Israeli army.

When they were combatants, both men would have considered the other with suspicion and fear. This week, however, Shehadah and Alon have been in Britain along with fourteen other Israelis and Palestinians for a series of events in Warrington, Coventry and in London aimed at helping end the Middle East conflict. The group are part of Combatants For Peace, an organisation that consists of former members of the Israeli army and Palestinian armed groups, who have all decided to renounce their weapons.

Combatants for Peace is not the only group working for peace in the Middle East, but they are the only organisation that use theatre to spread this message. They employ a technique known as forum theatre that was first developed by the Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal as part of the approach he named Theatre of the Oppressed. The group re-enact actual scenes from their own lives in front of an audience, who are then encouraged to stop being spectators and become 'spect-actors' - participating in the action.

"Theatre is an important tool for non-violent resistance", explains Shehadah. He admits he grew up hating Israelis, but after years of being involved in the military resistance .

"I participated in military activities to end the occupation" he says, "but I eventually changed my mind because after 45 years of fighting there had been no concrete results." When he was asked to head up a non-violent movement by a woman who had taught him at university he agreed, and began to study the works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

Combatants for Peace was formed five years ago after a group of 12 Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in the territories met with four former Palestinian gunmen. Since that first meeting the group has grown and now has more than 150 members, and it recently won the prestigious Anna Lindh Award for Dialogue Between Culture.

"We are the only joint bi-national group that uses this technique" says Ben Yeger, the UK representative of the organisation and himself a former Israeli soldier. "The benefit is that it bridges difference in a way that talking does not do on its own."

During their theatrical performances the Israelis in the group play the Palestinians and vice versa. "There was one scene where I had to act like I was a Palestinian woman trying to get through a checkpoint" says Ricky, an Israeli female member of the group, "and for me, suddenly being forced to confront what Palestinians deal with on a daily basis, it was the moment when I completely understood what was being done in my name."

Trying to inhabit the world of the other side is also difficult for the Palestinian members of the group. Among the sixteen is one Palestinian man who was in prison for three life sentences for killing Palestinians who had been collaborating with the Israelis. There are also former members of Hezbollah in the party. "These are people who were educated to hate Israelis", says Ben Yeger, "so for them to even be in the same room as Israelis is huge for them."

In coming to Britain the members of Combatants for Peace were not simply interested in sharing their own personal stories: they also wanted to challenge audiences to think about what they would do. Troupe member Chen Alon says "we don't want our audience to criticise or just observe - we want them to put themselves in our shoes."

During Tuesday's performance at the United Reform Church in Coventry the group re-enacted a checkpoint scenario. Not everyone was happy to participate - one woman walked out in disgust at what she saw as the anti-Jewish slant of the scene.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians in Combatants for Peace are hardened to criticism from their respective communities. That men like Alon and Shehadah are even sharing the stage is, for Ben Yeger, a tribute to the power of theatre and a reason for hope. "No change happens without changing ourselves' says the former soldier 'and if people like us can change then surely others can as well."


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