No laughing matter: Comedian Jeremy Hardy's stand for Palestine

No laughing matter: Comedian Jeremy Hardy's stand for Palestine
Jeremy Hardy first travelled to the West Bank in 2002. After making a return visit in January, he sat down with The New Arab to reflect on his experiences.
7 min read
22 February, 2017
Hardy plays with Palestinian children during a January trip to the West Bank [MAP]
Jeremy Hardy is best known for his work as a comedian. He has received critical acclaim, and perhaps the occasional panning, for his work on BBC Radio 4 on shows including The News Quiz, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, and You'll Have Had Your Tea, in addition to being a regular on the British comedy tour circuit.

He has also appeared in TV shows including Blackadder Goes Forth, Loose Talk, and Jack and Jeremy's Real Lives with fellow British comedian Jack Dee.

Hardy is less known for his work as a keen advocate for Palestinian rights. But he first travelled to the West Bank in 2002, during the Second Intifada, during which he shot a documentary titled Jeremy Hardy vs the Israeli Army of his experiences, directed by Palestinian director Leila Sarsour.

In January this year Hardy returned to the West Bank, along with fellow British comedian Imran Yusuf, in a trip organised by Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) - a British NGO that offers medical services to Palestinian communities in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and in Lebanon.

During the trip Hardy again witnessed first-hand the impact of Israel's occupation on Palestinian communities.

On Monday night, Hardy and Yusuf were joined by fellow comedians Bill Bailey, Shazia Mirza, Sara Pascoe, and Alexei Sale for a MAP fundraising event titled Give It Up for Palestine at London's Leicester Square Theatre. All proceeds from the night went towards funding MAP projects supporting Palestinians living under occupation or as refugees.

Watch the trailer for Jeremy Hardy vs The Israeli Army

Shortly before taking to the stage Hardy sat down with The New Arab to discuss what he saw on his January trip, and what has changed on the ground since his first trip to Palestine in 2002.

The New Arab: What inspired your first trip to Palestine in 2002?

Jeremy Hardy: I'd just been asked to front this film that ended up being called Jeremy Hardy vs The Israeli Army.

Really I was a bit out of my depth. I was interested in the issue but I initially just said okay, I'm probably not going to go there otherwise.

The idea was that I would accompany activists doing this anti-occupation work with the International Solidarity Movement who would accompany farmers while they worked, just to give protection to people, and be human rights observers and also to protest.

But we couldn't do anything. It was the Second Intifada.

I ended up under siege in a hotel and I got evacuated after a few days. Then I went back in the summer to finish the film by which time everything was just trashed. For example in Bethlehem it was quiet, nobody was out and about doing things at all.

Hardy performs at London's Leicester Square Theatre [The New Arab]

Where did you go, and what did you see on your latest trip this January?

First of all we went to Hebron which was formerly the largest city in Palestine and a very vibrant economic centre. Now it is completely devastated because of the settlements.

It was the first place that settlements were built - after the 1967 war. Now the life of the Palestinians has basically been shut down more or less completely by settlers. The situation is like a microcosm of the West Bank.

We also went to the Jordan valley and met Bedouin there who are helped by a MAP-funded visiting clinic - which is basically a white van with a clinic in it - and went to Silwad where we met a lady whose land had been confiscated by settlers.

The point of this trip was not just to look at what MAP is doing but how the occupation impacts on people.

For example we met with paramedics who explained that in order to go from Ramallah to the main Palestinian hospital in Jerusalem, the Makkased, Palestinians have to go through a checkpoint. If they are in an ambulance they have to be transferred from one ambulance in a holding area on the Ramallah side into another that has come from the Jerusalem side.

People die because they don't reach the hospital in time. People also miss appointments all the time because of getting held up at the checkpoints, for example for not having the right paperwork…

It just highlights the brutality of the occupation in the way it just makes ordinary everyday life, things that we take for granted, impossible.

Hardy travelled to the West Bank with fellow British comedian Imran Yusuf in a trip organised by British NGO MAP in January 2017 [MAP]

What were the differences and similarities between the 2002 trip and the trip this year?

The settlements have expanded. In 2002 the wall wasn't there. People would find ways around checkpoints by walking a very long way. This time there wasn't actually fighting on the ground like in 2002.

At that time the Israeli army had actually invaded the whole of the West Bank and they were attacking Arafat's compound in Ramallah, and in Bethlehem, where we were.

This time there was less sign of the military. Settlements had obviously expanded.

The wall is just this feature that you can't avoid seeing. It is just this hideous thing that just divides people from their businesses, their land, from their families - and whereas when we went during the Second Intifada you felt that although the Palestinians were fighting which meant they were getting killed, you sensed, that they had some hope and were trying to make some progress.

Now you felt very much as if you were somewhere, I wouldn't say defeated, but really ground-down, crushed.

The first trip in 2002 must have been an eye-opening experience...

In 2002, I remember I went to a maternity hospital that had been shelled by the Israelis. I didn't see stuff like that this time but… I met this woman who gave birth in Makkased hospital and now can't get a permit to go and collect her baby - it's been something like five months.

These sort of needlessly cruel acts of occupation which people might say on the global scale of things are not a huge deal - but there are so many of these instances, and examples of what occupation and the blockade of Gaza does and how needlessly cruel it is, the bureaucratic red tape that makes people miserable.

Settlers act with impunity, take peoples' land, destroy their farms, try and clear a buffer zone around each settlement where no one is allowed to enter.

I think these are the things that people don't potentially know about. Settling sounds like quite a gentle thing, but people don't realise that it's basically an armed occupation and settlers are a physical part of that and they are heavily armed themselves.

Hardy first visited the West Bank in 2002, fifteen years before his most recent trip in January 2017 [MAP]

What about your interactions with Palestinian people themselves?

They are very hospitable, very welcoming. But now shop-keepers are desperate - it is not just sort of the level of pushiness that you get at markets and souqs throughout the world, there is a level of desperation because people are struggling to just make a living selling anything.

In Hebron it was certainly noticeable. Of the handful of shops that remain open, the people are just desperate for you to buy something, anything. But people are friendly, they are not wary of us, they seem more weary. Whereas maybe in 2002 people seemed defiant, people now seem weary and worn-down.

Did Donald Trump come up in discussions with Palestinians you met?

I tried not to have that conversation, he seems devastating for Palestinians because he is such an uncritical supporter of Israel.

More recently he seems to have tempered some of his comments, but he doesn't appear poised to put any pressure on Israel - quite the reverse - and he has emboldened the Israeli right, and settlers.

Trump's election seems like a disaster for Palestinians.

Do you think there is a responsibility for comedians, actors, and people in the public eye to advocate for these causes?

I think it is more of a choice. Some people are not comfortable with advocating, they think it compromises their work to be seen as a mouthpiece for something, or for using their work as a platform, they do not feel comfortable with that.

I'm fine with it really, how effective it is in terms of changing people's minds, or informing them, I don't know.

Some people might just come to this gig tonight because they like Bill Bailey, or they like comedy, and then they might know nothing about the issue, but then they might take away something extra and become involved.

Entertainment is something to hang things on. If you had a meeting about this issue you would get the same old band of weary people turning up, whereas hopefully this is an entertaining evening for people where they can learn a bit about it and get fired up as well.   

Jeremy Hardy was talking to Martin Armstrong for The New Arab.