One-man play by U.N. official draws ire in Israel

JERUSALEM — The United Nations has never been especially beloved in Israel, where the international body is often viewed as biased and pro-Palestinian. Vandals in certain religious Jerusalem neighborhoods have been known even to deface U.N. cars by adding certain consonants around U.N. stickers to create a vulgar curse word.

Now the United Nations relief agency serving Palestinians is raising new controversy with a one-man show in which the agency's chief spokesman depicts the final days of the U.N.'s central warehouse in Gaza City, which was destroyed in January by Israeli military fire.

The spokesman, Chris Gunness, says the effort is intended to improve the U.N.'s image by showing Israelis that they share values and history with the organization.

"Using the symbolism of the warehouse burning down really touches a nerve for a lot of Israelis," said Gunness, a 49-year-old former BBC reporter who once covered the United Nations in New York.

But that touch isn't always pleasant. One man stood up at the debut performance in Tel Aviv to try to shout Gunness down. The play's scheduled two-night run in Acre was abruptly cancelled after the festival director came under pressure.

Relations between Israel and the United Nations, never good, have become especially strained since Israel's Gaza offensive last winter.

Aimed at hobbling Gaza's hard-line Hamas rulers and deterring Palestinian militants from persistently firing crude rockets at southern Israel, the offensive took a big toll on U.N. schools, health clinics, and convoys. Several U.N. staff members were killed, as were dozens of Palestinian civilians who'd sought refuge from the fighting.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a highly critical report that accused Israel of "negligence or recklessness" in failing to avoid hitting U.N. compounds.

Ban also established a special committee that is expected to release a critical report in the coming weeks on Israeli and Hamas actions during the fighting in Gaza.

During the Israeli offensive, Gunness repeatedly went on television to challenge Israeli claims that Hamas fighters were seeking refuge in U.N. buildings.

The Israeli strike on the central UN compound in Gaza City during the waning days of the conflict was one of the most contentious.

Hundreds of refugees had sought shelter in the compound run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, better known as UNRWA.

U.N. workers said they repeatedly called the Israeli military and asked them to redirect their attacks because they were hitting their compound.

Despite the appeals, Israeli white phosphorus shells eventually ignited the main warehouse. U.N. workers rushed to prevent burning white phosphorus from igniting trucks filled with diesel.

"It's a tragic piece of symbolism that the very pallets that we deliver humanitarian assistance on are on fire in Gaza," Gunness told the Democracy Now! radio show on the day the warehouse was set ablaze.

It wasn't long before Gunness transformed that symbol into a one-man show.

The inspiration came from Tamar Berger, a teacher at Israel's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design who'd asked Gunness to speak as part of a Tel Aviv presentation on storage space that included archeologists, planners, doctors, and even someone from the Israeli military.

Gunness decided to become the embodiment of the Gaza City warehouse in a piece now titled "Building Understanding: Epitaph for a Warehouse."

The show begins with a video montage from Gaza. A spotlight hits Gunness, sitting on a barstool: "Shalom, marhaba," says Gunness, using Hebrew and Arabic words for "hello." "I am a warehouse... What you saw were my final, terrifying days."

For about 45 minutes, Gunness uses video interviews with U.N. staff members who were in the compound and footage of the fire to tell his story.

Gunness doesn't accuse Israel of war crimes in the show.

But, during the first performance in May, a man in the audience got up to disrupt the show and accuse Gunness of distorting the facts.

Berger said the show generates a strong reaction from Israelis, most of whom serve some time in the military. Many are jarred by the images.

"People can't face reality and, once they do face it, it's realizing that a lot of what you have been taught to believe is true (isn't) necessarily true," she said. "All your truths collapse — and this is something very difficult to face."

The following month, Gunness took the show to Sderot, the southern Israeli town hardest hit by years of Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.

At the request of a teacher, Gunness performed his show at Sderot's Sapir College, where one of the students was killed by a Gaza rocket last year.

Gunness was set to perform earlier this month as part of a theater festival in Acre, the mixed Arab-Jewish city on Israel's coast that was the scene last year of violent clashes.

Hours before he was to go on stage, Gunness got word that the Masrachid Festival director, Roby Firas, had pulled the plug. Firas said that festival board members had approached him days earlier and essentially told him to cancel the show.

Mony Yosef, a founder of the Masrachid Festival, called the play "amateur" crap and accused Gunness of trying to use the festival's reputation to promote the U.N.

"We don't want to make PR for UNRWA," said Yosef.

Reem Hazzan, an Acre activist who helped Firas with the show, said that the director received direct political pressure from Acre's city government.

"If you hold the UNRWA program, you can forget about funding for the whole Masrachid festival," Hazzan said the group was told.

But the cancellation led to several invitations from other theaters in Israel. Gunness now plans to perform the show on Oct. 22 in Jaffa, the mixed port city south of Tel Aviv. Firas said he wants to bring Gunness back to Acre for a weeklong run.

Despite the contentious reception, Gunness said the piece is not meant to be political. It's meant, he said, to show Israelis what happened to the U.N. in Gaza — and to open a dialogue with Israelis who remain skeptical of the international body.

"The UN was born of the ashes of the Holocaust and so was Israel," said Gunness. "The piece says we have a lot in common and I think it challenges some perceptions."


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