GAZA CITY — A new play has shocked audiences in the Gaza Strip by shouting out what many in the Hamas-ruled territory mutter behind closed doors -- that Palestinian politicians are a bunch of crooks.
The biting comedy entitled "Umbilical Cord" goes after the Islamist Hamas and its secular Fatah rivals, accusing them of ignoring the suffering of their people and selling out to Iran and the United States, respectively.
Though it takes to task all the main Palestinian factions, the play is remarkable for its criticism of Hamas, which has ruled the embattled territory since driving out its Fatah rivals in June 2007.
"I was afraid it would be prevented from being shown," said director Hazem Abu Hamid, whose invitations to the three-night run this week gave little hint of the content.
"It's an escape valve for what people say in secret... their frustration about the division and their anger over the foreign aid that interferes with decisions," he said.
Against the backdrop of a tumble-down refugee camp, the play's working-class characters relate tales of suffering under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the territory tightened after the takeover.
At one point a character representing Hamas claims to have liberated Gaza, from which Israel withdrew all of its troops and settlements in 2005, and of being "steadfast against the siege", drawing an angry reaction from other figures in the play.
"Gaza is under siege and every day the (Israeli) tanks enter," another character says. "The steadfastness against the blockade comes from our martyred children."
"But we bring you money in exchange for your martyred children," the man representing Fatah chimes in.
"F*** the money," says an actress playing a Palestinian refugee whose son was killed in an Israeli incursion. "Take my life and give me back my son. This is a dog's life, with no electricity, no flour, no jobs."
The same woman recounts how her daughter made it back into Gaza during a rare opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt to marry her fiancee, just as he was about to leave her.
Another character complains about the rival Palestinian governments in Gaza and the West Bank and their inability to bring about the lifting of the siege, which keeps out all but basic goods and has crippled the local economy.
"We have two health ministries but no electricity, no flour, and no cement," he says.
The main Palestinian factions are represented throughout the play by four men in suits sarcastically referred to as "The Great Ones", all carrying briefcases labelled "politics".
A coloured cord identifies their factions -- green for Hamas, yellow for Fatah, black for Islamic Jihad and red for the smaller leftist factions, hence the title.
Throughout, the play heavily implies that Fatah is in the employ of the United States while Hamas works for Iran.
"Setting up a faction is easier than opening a shop," says Lafi al-Ahbal, the wise fool of the play.
"If you want to set up a faction just shout slogans about Jerusalem and the settlements and the wall and incontinence... You'll make a fortune in aid."
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has received hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid from the European Union and the United States, while Hamas is heavily financed by Iran.
Israel has accused Tehran of arming Hamas and using it to stoke conflict, charges denied by Iran. Many Palestinians meanwhile believe the rivalry between the United States and Iran has paralysed reconciliation efforts.
The harshness of the criticism shocked many in the audience. Since it seized power Hamas has brutally cracked down on any perceived threat to its rule, whether from Fatah members or more radical Islamic groups.
Yet despite fears of a shutdown the play ran as planned, each evening drawing some 1,500 Gazans eager for diversion after all the enclave's formal theatres and cinemas were shut down during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the 1980s.
A handful of local and international cultural centres, like the Al-Shawa Cultural Centre where "Umbilical Cord" was shown, however, carry on cultural life here, hosting plays and other events.
"This is a scream in the face of the officials, because the people are sick and tired of the way they do business," said Iyad Abu Shariya, who heads an independent cultural organisation that produced the play with aid from the Swiss development fund and local donors.
"We wanted to force them to hear what we think about this awful situation," he said.
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