Reporter's notebook'Theoretical knowledge isn't like the discomfort inside'

At The Hague, Israelis brave protests to present a portable ‘Hamas tunnel’ exhibit

A gallery owner from Israel and her allies shepherd visitors into a cramped replica fitted into the box of a truck so they can get some sense of what Hamas’s hostages endure

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Rachel Meijler enters a replica of a Hamas tunnel in The Hague, Netherlands on June 6, 2024. (Rachel Meijler)
Rachel Meijler enters a replica of a Hamas tunnel in The Hague, Netherlands on June 6, 2024. (Rachel Meijler)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Not everyone who visits this traveling art installation about the Israeli hostages in Gaza understands its message.

A tunnel resembling Hamas’s underground passageways that is housed inside the box of a truck, it has left some of the 2,000 visitors who have entered it thinking they had just experienced a free-of-charge, recreational escape room.

And that’s just fine by the installation’s initiator, the Israeli-Dutch gallery owner Rachel Meijler, who helped create it last month with funding from the Christian for Israel group and Jewish donors to raise awareness of the hostages. For Meijler, it was also a way of commemorating a relative of hers, Laor Abramov, 20, who was murdered on October 7.

While puzzling to some, the installation, which last week moved from Amsterdam to The Hague en route to Rotterdam, has angered others and moved people from across the political spectrum to tears. It immerses visitors for half a minute in the world of darkness and uncertainty that has become routine for dozens of hostages held in captivity by Hamas terrorists in Gaza.

“You could easily turn such an installation into a propaganda prop that would leave visitors certain of the message, but that’s not what we wanted to achieve,” Meijler, 49, told The Times of Israel. “This installation is supposed to speak for itself and spark interest and compassion. If that means a few clueless visitors, I’m willing to live with it.”

People wait to enter a replica of a Hamas tunnel in the Netherlands in May 2024. (Rachel Meijler)

Meijler, who does six-hour shifts shepherding people into the installation, sometimes intervenes when visitors miss the message, which is explained in signs at the entrance to the tunnel.

On June 6, a group of 12-year-olds came out of the tunnel saying it was “cool.” She approached them, saying she understood why they were excited but added that “there’s a very sad reality behind this tunnel. Children younger than you have been forced to live in such a tunnel for the better part of a year.” The children fell silent and listened to her explanations. One of them was shaking his head as they walked off quietly.

Last week, Meijler had the installation, which was created by artist Roni Levavi and placed in Amsterdam, moved to The Hague, the seat of the Dutch government and the International Court of Justice. Next week it will travel to Rotterdam, home to a large Palestinian community and a major hub of operations for the Hamas movement in Europe.

“It’s a bit scary, I’m a bit worried. But I decided not to give up,” Meijler, who is Jewish and grew up in Amsterdam before immigrating to Israel as an adult, told The Times of Israel about the Rotterdam opening.

Amid a proliferation of antisemitic and anti-Israeli assaults in the Netherlands after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza on October 7, Meijler has police protection and her own private security when she works around the installation. There, she invites passersby to enter the dark, cramped space and speaks with them after they exit.

In Amsterdam, the display last month prompted anti-Israel protesters to stage a sit-in around it until police forcefully removed them, Meijler said. She has not felt physically threatened showcasing the installation, where visitors are encouraged to write messages with markers on the interior walls.

A truck carrying a replica of a Hamas tunnel parks in front of a concert hall in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in May 2024. (Rachel Meijler)

Strange bedfellows

The move to The Hague was meant to facilitate visits by lawmakers from the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of the Dutch parliament. Several of them came, Meijler said, but almost all of them were from pro-Israel parties from the center and the right wing.

A visit by Mona Keijzer, a lawmaker for the Eurosceptic and right-wing BBB party, underlined an awkward reality to Meijler, who is left-leaning in her political orientation.

Days before the visit to the installation, Keijzer had said in a television interview that “Jew-hatred is almost a part of the culture” in Muslim-majority countries. “It left a funny feeling in my stomach that your only friends at the moment are Muslim haters. Which is difficult for me to, you know, it’s difficult to accept,” Meijler said.

Meanwhile, in her left-leaning circles, Meijler is feeling increasingly isolated, partly because of her activism for the hostages, she said.

“If I say that I’m proud of Israel, of the army, I’m almost seen as a monster. And then you come out of such a meeting with people that you love feeling raw, that they don’t like me anymore. And that’s difficult,” she explained.

In addition to BBB politicians, also members of the far-right, pro-Israel Party for Freedom of Geert Wilders visited the installation. Wilders’s party received the highest share of the vote in last year’s election and is poised to enter a coalition agreement with other right-wing parties, including BBB.

Ulysse Ellian, right, speaks to an interlocutor at a conference on antisemitism in Amsterdam, the Netherlands on June 3, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

“It’s unthinkable that there the hostages are kept in these conditions, day in and day out,” said Ulysse Ellian of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, which is one of the Party for Freedom’s coalition partners. His father, Afshin, is a prominent law professor and intellectual who escaped his native Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Both father and son are under increased secret service protection for their criticisms of radical Islam.

The installation also attracts sympathizers of the Palestinian cause, including one Italian woman who wore a keffiyeh when she entered but emerged from the tunnel saying she was shocked and moved, Meijler said.

“Theoretical knowledge is different to the stuffiness and discomfort one feels inside the thing,” Ronny Naftaniel, a former leader of Dutch Jews, told The Times of Israel after visiting the installation in The Hague on June 5.

Overnight, the installation is in the care of a Christian pro-Israel family in the country’s north, who keep it on their property despite their fear that it would expose them to anti-Israel hostility, Meijler said.

When at the installation, Meijler often thinks of her murdered relative, she said, and especially when tall Dutchmen walk into the tunnel (a common occurrence, as theirs is considered the world’s tallest nationality).

“I think of Laor, who was almost 2 meters (6’7’’) and imagine him ducking in the tunnel like they do,” Meijler said.

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