The Audience Decides What Happens to Israeli Soldiers and Hamas Fighters Trapped in a Tunnel

Actors in a new Gesher Theater production identify with their characters in this realistic play about army, politics and the media, but have also developed a sense of brotherhood and purpose.

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A scene from 'In the Tunnel.'
A scene from 'In the Tunnel.'Credit: Victoria Shaw
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi
Yair Ashkenazi

The premier of “In the Tunnel,” the new play by the Gesher Theater in Jaffa, ended in a crisis in the cast. The satirical work, written by Roee Chen and directed by Irad Rubinstein, recounts the story of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers who are trapped by Hamas members in an underground tunnel near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip – and the audience is asked as they come in to vote on their fate at polling booths in the entrance to the hall: that is, to decide whether there will or will not be light at the end of the tunnel.

On the evening of the debut, on January 11, the audience elected a bad ending, and despite the actors’ intensive rehearsals for both possible outcomes of the play, at the moment of truth the audience’s vote took them aback. Actor Firas Nassar, a new graduate of the Nissan Nativ acting studio in Tel Aviv who plays the Hamas member Hisham, descended from the stage feeling emotionally shattered. Uri Yaniv, who plays the United Nations representative Thomas Handfiller, came and hugged him.

“I told him that we’re in such a shitty situation that we can’t even grasp it,” says Nassar. “Our situation here stinks – from sweat, from blood, from hatred. It’s not so far-fetched; as a spectator I would also have chosen the bad end. I’m not one of the hopefuls.”

For four months, Nassar was ensconced together with Miki Leon, who plays the Israel Defense Force reservist Iftah, and Idan Musari, who portrays Tzlil, an enthusiastic soldier in the regular army, in exhausting, testosterone-filled rehearsals.

“I would return home from long days of rehearsals just like after a day in the army or basic training, with calluses on my hands and legs,” Musari recounts. “We are carrying a real weight on our shoulders here, and add to those military experiences we were undergoing the fact that we also have this male brotherhood.”

Musari notes that the actors began to feel a close emotional identification with their own characters, in his case of that of the young gung-ho Tzlil.

Nassar, a Nazareth-born Christian, also says he has felt a deep identification with his character.

“We felt that we were almost over-identifying with the characters," Musari says, "until we learned more about each other both as partners and as human beings.”

“Both sides [in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] are so charged and born into impossible situations of hatred. For years we have been fed propaganda that sews hatred in us and this produces a situation where, when an Arab actor – it doesn’t matter that he’s Christian – and an Israeli actor – it doesn’t matter that he’s a leftist – go into a rehearsal room, there is tension. We are victims of the propaganda that apparently influences the interests of the politicians and the media. This is highly dangerous, and the play shines a light on the subject.”

“In the Tunnel,” which was inspired by the screenplay for Dennis Tanovic’s Bosnian film “No Man’s Land,” reflects an Israeli media and military reality fairly accurately, but does not get caught up in clichés. Indeed, it manages to surprise with the radicalization and craziness of its portrayal of certain elements that are familiar from the realms of politics, the army and the media.

To a great degree the play also presents the many similarities between the two sides – including between their leaders – including the fact that the public is often mistreated or pushed to the sidelines of the conversation by violent incitement.

The stage is designed so that the tunnel in which the soldiers and Hamas men are located is at its base, while above them exists the “upper” world, in which a new-age morning program is simultaneously broadcast on television. The female presenter harasses her viewers with "fateful" questions about wheat-grass shakes ־ and then immediately morphs into a newscaster when there is a need to report on the drama at the border with the Strip.

A scene from 'In the Tunnel.'Credit: Victoria Shaw

'Patriotic project'

The eternal question – who started all this, them or us? – which repeatedly appears in the play did not arise between the actors during the rehearsals.

“The involvement in this material was tough and painful," Nassar explains, "but it was also pleasant to bring it up and discuss it on stage, in a theater financed by the state. There were many political discussions and this time I felt there was understanding and an ability to listen on both sides.”

Rubinstein recounts that the first argument that arose between cast members during rehearsals was over how they should portray the members of the Islamist Hamas movement.

“In order not to reawaken the debate over the definition of a ‘terrorist,’ I started calling them ‘IDF soldiers’ and ‘Hamasniks,’ and this became entrenched in me. We are one army and they are another,” he says. “You can say many things, but apparently that’s what it is. Firas chose to represent the other side but said, ‘I don’t call them terrorists.’”

Nassar, for his part, clarifies that “’Hamsniks’ is too Israeli a term for me. Hamas fighters, IDF fighters – that’s how I call them.”

Beyond the choice of its ending, will the play have the power to change fixations and set ways of thinking also in the reality outside the stage?

Chen: “No person [watching] the play can be fixated in his views while it is taking place. Maybe people will leave the theater and immediately return to those fixations. I don’t think plays change the world."

Rubinstein disagrees. “A good play can change the world, and that’s our weapon. Therefore it is important to use it as much as possible. I don’t want the play to be tendentious – and it is not tendentious in any clear political direction. Leftists were saddened by it and maybe rightists will also be upset by it and that’s wonderful, because if we irritate everyone then that's great. I feel that it’s a patriotic project. For a long time a certain faction took patriotism upon itself in this country, and I feel that just like my duty to carry out reserve [military] duty, it is my duty to do this work, and it is my patriotic duty as an Israeli who is proud of being Israeli to spill these things out, to ask questions and begin a dialogue.”

“Friends of mine, who hold certain views and are not self-righteous, said the play surprised them because it has criticism for both sides,” says Nassar. “Add to this that it’s an Israeli production that manages to bring the character of an Arab that is so interesting, complex and awakens the audience’s identification – and it doesn’t really matter if the audience is Jewish or Arab.”

Rubinstein says that his friends in the army reserves, in the elite 669 search-and-rescue unit, some of whom hold more rightist views, expressed a similar stance regarding the parity in the two sides portrayed in "In the Tunnel": “One of them told me, ‘I don’t think they take sides, rather they put the people in life-and-death situations under the ground, and when the layers peel off they remain human beings."

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