West Bank theatre pays price for freedom

Staff of Freedom Theatre in Jenin, whose co-founder was killed last year, complain of arrests and harassment.

Juliano Mer-Khamis
Freedom Theatre director Juliano Mer-Khamis was shot dead in April 2011 by unknown gunmen [AFP/Getty Images]

Jerusalem – Micaela Miranda woke up at 3am last Wednesday to the sound of dogs barking. When she reached her front door, she saw six armed Israeli soldiers jumping over the gate that leads to her Jenin home.

Minutes later, the soldiers took her husband away.

“I just saw him disappearing in the dark with the commander and another three soldiers,” Miranda said. “The house was full of soldiers all around. They were at the house for one hour.”

Miranda’s husband, Nabil Al-Raee, is the artistic director of the renowned Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

According to Miranda, he is currently being held incommunicado at the Jalame detention facility in northern Israel, and his attorney has been unable to ascertain the exact reason for his arrest.

“Nabil is an artist. Everyone who knows him knows that he never committed a crime except for expressing what he thinks. He spoke out as a way to resist injustice,” Miranda said.

String of arrests

The Israeli army confirmed Al-Raee’s arrest, telling Agence France-Presse last week that he “was arrested overnight in Jenin on suspicion of involvement in illegal activity”. No further details have been made available.

Nabil Al-Raee is being held at the Jalame detention facility in northern Israel, his wife says [Freedom Theatre]

Al-Raee is the latest in a string of people affiliated with the Freedom Theatre who have been arrested over the past year. These included a 20-year-old lead actor, a member of the theatre’s board of directors, and various staff members.

Additionally, the Israeli army has broken theatre windows and equipment and shot live ammunition during night raids conducted in the camp, and intimidated and ransacked homes of theatre employees.

The Israeli authorities originally said the arrests were related to the ongoing investigation into the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a well-known Palestinian-Israeli actor and director who was shot and killed in April 2011 in front of the Freedom Theatre.

Mer-Khamis co-founded the theatre in 2006 as a way to empower Palestinian youth in the camp and encourage creative expression as a method of resistance to both the restrictions imposed by traditional Palestinian society and the Israeli occupation.

According to Freedom Theatre Managing Director Jonathan Stanczak, however, since Freedom Theatre employees have always co-operated with the investigation into Mer-Khamis’ death, the arrests can be seen as part of an intimidation campaign meant to discourage people from joining.

“We were very clear that we want to participate and contribute to any investigation regarding the murder of Juliano, but we strongly oppose the means and methods they used to conduct these interrogations,” Stanczak said.

He explained that three weeks ago, the Israeli intelligence agency (known as Shabak or the Shin Bet, according to its Hebrew acronym) called nearly half of all Freedom Theatre employees into interrogation at an Israeli army base near Jenin. Stanczak said that the questions asked during these interviews related to Mer-Khamis’ murder, the activities of the Freedom Theatre, and things happening in the Jenin refugee camp.

“Everybody complied and came to the appointments and contributed any information they could, including Nabil and Micaela. Why, if only three weeks ago, people came and answered all questions they could, do they now come to Nabil’s house, in front of his family, and take him from his house?” Stanczak said.

The Jenin refugee camp, a 0.42 square kilometre area in the north of the occupied West Bank, is home to over 16,000 registered Palestinian refugees, more than half of whom are under the age of 24.

The camp was severely damaged during the Second Intifada, when it was a centre of armed Palestinian resistance. Clashes in the camp in 2002 between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters lasted 10 days and left many dead, 150 buildings destroyed and more than 430 families homeless.

Today, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has jurisdiction over the camp. It began a criminal investigation into Mer-Khamis’ death immediately after he was killed in April 2011. The Israelis also began their own investigation shortly thereafter, run jointly by the Israeli army, police, and Shabak.

To date, no one has been charged. On the one-year anniversary of Mer-Khamis’ death earlier this year, a demonstration was held in front of the Muqata, the headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, demanding justice.

Memorials were also held in Haifa and Jaffa to commemorate Mer-Khamis and the Freedom Theatre’s work, which continues despite Mer-Khamis’ absence and has expanded to not only include theatre and acting, but filmmaking, dance, and other forms of artistic expression, as well.

Pressure from within

When critical discourse starts to arise in society, this is very good. We are happy that some people are questioning what we do.”

– Jonathan Stanczak

In recent years, pressure on the Freedom Theatre has also come from within Palestinian society. According to Stanczak, attempts were made to burn down the theatre in 2008, and Palestinians in the camp levied threats against actors and staff, telling them to stop what they were doing.

“We are a place where creative ideas and new perspectives are generated. Of course, there are people in society that are against this,” Stanczak said.

A play staged by the Freedom Theatre in 2009, for instance, was adapted from George Orwell’s classic “Animal Farm” and dealt with the limits imposed within Palestinian society and the corruption of the Palestinian leadership. While it was well-received and was shown to packed audiences, it was also highly criticised.

“This is proof that we actually have an affect. When critical discourse starts to arise in society, this is very good. We are happy that some people are questioning what we do,” Stanczak said.

The Freedom Theatre has also staged adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and Waiting for Godot, and its actors have performed across the West Bank, Egypt, the United States and in various European cities.

For Micaela Miranda, while having no contact with her husband and no information about why he was arrested is painful for both herself and her young daughter, the outpouring of support she’s received is a reminder of the impact the Freedom Theatre is having.

“This is the only positive side of it, to know that there are a lot of people that support Nabil and his work,” she said, adding, “We are here to empower the [Palestinian] society about their identity and this is exactly what Israel is working against. It is a threat.”

Follow Jillian Kestler-D’Amours on Twitter @jilldamours.

Source: Al Jazeera