Art at a time of siege
Across Palestine, Israel has increased its targeting of children, women and men, and as is often the case, Jenin Refugee Camp is disproportionately affected. The Israeli army is once again invading, jeeps are occupying the narrow streets, and just like last year, the month of Ramadan has become an anxious and bloody time.
Jenin city has been placed under siege, and Palestinians are navigating another layer to the labyrinth of walls, checkpoints, and borders that constantly restrict and control the population.
There are cries from Israel that this is justified, that it is retaliation for an increase in attacks that have recently taken place. But pointing the finger whilst enacting collective punishment - illegal under international law - is an age-old Israeli tactic, as is ignoring the role that decades of violent land grabs, military occupation and apartheid play in these attacks.
Already in Jenin Refugee Camp, emotions are high.
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Israeli siege and invasion that saw the camp bulldozed to the ground. At least 52 Palestinians were murdered, countless others inflicted with life-altering injuries and a large proportion of the male population imprisoned.
''Ukrainians are being celebrated for arts on the frontline, Molotov cocktails and everyday people acquiring guns and joining the armed resistance. However, in Palestine, these same tactics and calls for solidarity are routinely ignored and condemned.''
However, despite the disproportionate violence and clear human rights violations, as well as international law stipulating that you are allowed to respond to an armed invasion in your homeland, Palestinians were labelled terrorists.
This is why in 2006, Zakaria Zubeidi, a leader of Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, and actor and director Juliano Mer Khamis, decided to create The Freedom Theatre. Their mission was to equip young people with the artistic tools to express their reality to the outside world.
“Somebody needs to tell the story of the fighter: Who is he? Why is he doing what he is doing? You cannot just take a picture and write that he is a terrorist,” said founder Zakaria who was born in the camp, shot at the age of thirteen and imprisoned by fourteen. “The occupation destroyed my childhood. Now the theatre is back, allowing us to develop a different narrative,” he explained.
The theatre has had local and international success, with world-renowned theatre directors, filmmakers, and politicians regularly visiting. Young artists now have opportunities and choices that were not afforded to Zakaria, “I didn’t want to become an armed resistance fighter, but this is what life gave me. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be Romeo. Now at The Freedom Theatre, others can have that chance.”
The brand of cultural resistance that stands up for human rights, justice and equality has become famous, with productions touring worldwide, breaking racist and Islamophobic stereotypes, reclaiming the Palestinian narrative and building international solidarity.
Culture put Jenin Refugee Camp on the map for positive reasons and shattered the long-experienced isolation.
But challenging Israel's carefully curated framing of its history has been met with violence.
Juliano Mer Khamis was shot by an unknown masked man outside The Freedom Theatres’ doors. The murder took place days after the final show of Alice in Wonderland, a production that bought audiences to Jenin Camp from far and wide and was critically acclaimed in global media.
The theatre's staff and students continue to be subjected to harassment, arrests, imprisonment and travel bans.
The Covid-19 lockdowns - a temporary measure for most of the world - have taken longer to be lifted in Palestine, where there are concerns that the pandemic will be an excuse to further the Israeli agenda of isolating and dividing up the population.
For a theatre whose fundamental aim is to engage an international audience with the situation on the ground, closed borders have taken their toll.
The theatre responded to recent challenges of free movement by creating ‘The Revolution’s Promise’, a global solidarity project inviting anyone in the world to read the testimonies of Palestinian artists. Ahmed Tobasi, the current artistic director, emphasises that '[a]s our borders become harder to cross, our funding removed, and censorship of our voices continues, it is crucial that we find new ways to mobilise as Palestinian artists’.
Workshops on the project should be taking place in Catalonia next week. However, Mustafa Sheta, the theatre’s producer, has been banned from travel by Israel, and now that Jenin is under siege, there is a question of whether Tobasi will be allowed out. The army is literally on his doorstep.
Obstructed from working, Tobasi is left to contemplate the enormous responsibility of leading the next generation of artists. As a young person, he was shot and also sentenced as a child to four years in prison. He is refreshingly honest about the toll this chaos takes on his mental health, and how the circles of violence turn inwards pulling you towards darkness and death, with toxic masculinity becoming a survival tool.
Tobasi attempts to break the social taboo of mental health with the young artists he trains, encouraging conversations on depression, anxiety and trauma.
However, as new horrors are inflicted daily, creativity and dialogue cannot shield anyone from the pain of life in the camp. Funerals are endless, and a new generation of young men are watching their friends being murdered.
At the time of writing, eight people have been killed from Jenin in the last weeks, including 16-year-old Mohammad Qassim, who was shot at close range with live ammunition.
The question of how best to stand up to the coloniser in a struggle lasting decades, and move the international community into meaningful action remains an impossible puzzle.
Ukrainians are being celebrated for arts on the frontline, Molotov cocktails and everyday people acquiring guns and joining the armed resistance. Worldwide, people, including politicians and artists, have organised protests and fundraisers, lit up buildings in yellow and blue, embraced cultural boycotts and employed sanctions.
However, in Palestine, these same tactics and calls for solidarity are routinely ignored and condemned. Meanwhile, under siege, The Freedom Theatre continues to tell the story of Jenin Camp and find new ways to inspire action from an international community who have the power to end the brutality.
Zoe Lafferty is associate director at The Freedom Theatre in Jenin Refugee Camp, Palestine where she is currently collaborating on the global solidarity project ‘The Revolution’s Promise’ and virtual reality film ‘In A Thousand Silences’.
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.