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Play Warmly Received In Israel, Sour Reaction From Palestinians

January 6, 1996

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - Jordanian comedians Nabil Sawalha and Hisham Yanis got a standing ovation when they performed their one-act play in Israel. For the first time ever, Israelis were laughing at former enemies poking fun at them.

The play, ``Peace O’ Peace,″ which satirizes the Arab-Israeli peace process, was ``nothing short of a cathartic experience″ for the Israeli audience, theater critic Naomi Doudai said.

Israelis are portrayed as clever but also as opportunistic and sometimes brutal. In one scene, ancient Israelites in Jericho with long beards and caveman garb drive out the local population, shouting, ``Kill all the Arabs.″ In another, Israeli negotiators at peace talks in Washington want to talk about birds and the environment while the Arab side wants to discuss land.

The play caricatures the Middle East’s historic personalities _ from the Biblical figure Joshua to PLO leader Yasser Arafat. It doesn’t shy away from such touchy issues as human rights violations in Arab countries.

In one scene, Arafat, played by Yanis, and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, played by Sawalha, argue about the borders of a future Palestinian-ruled state. Looking confused, Arafat gives in as Peres circles vague lines on the palm of his hand.

``I have to call Clinton first,″ is all Arafat can say.

The scene, as well as all those that show Israelis taking advantage of the Palestinians’ weak position in peace negotiations, drew bursts of laughter from the packed Israeli theater.

But when Sawalha and Yanis took the play to the Palestinian West Bank town of Ramallah, stones were thrown at the theater.

The Palestinian press criticized Yanis and Sawalha for lighting candles at the grave of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and for performing the play in Israel before bringing it to the West Bank.

Back home, the Jordanian artists’ and writers’ associations expelled the pair for violating a ban on contacts with Israel, which the groups have refused to drop despite last year’s Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

To Israelis, the play symbolizes new, peaceful relations between the two countries and the beginnings of a cultural exchange.

The performers ``bring here a taste of reality to the new era promised by the peace process,″ Doudai, the critic, wrote in the English-language Jerusalem Post.

But the play revealed Palestinians’ apprehension about other Arab states normalizing relations with Israel while they are still negotiating the terms of self-rule.

``The situation with Israel is still not normal; we haven’t got our rights yet, we don’t have an independent state yet. Culturally, all these things are linked. We cannot talk about normalization when there are thousands of prisoners still in Israeli jails,″ said Ahmed Abu Salloum, a member of the Palestinian actors’ association.

Sawalha said he was apprehensive about performing the play in Israel _ the pair put on four shows in Tel Aviv earlier this month _ but the audience turned out to be ``terrific.″

``It’s very funny - the way they see us, as if from inside a mirror, beyond hostilities,″ said Raz Dekel, a 20-year-old Israeli medical student.

Yanis said he was dismayed, however, by the Palestinians’ negative response.

``We had good intentions but were shocked to see the reaction,″ he said. ``That’s not the way an Arab would welcome a brother.″

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