One of the more disturbing things that Ranin Odeh has observed during the activity sessions she runs for children at the Freedom Theatre in the West Bank’s Jenin camp is that their play often turns violent. Children frequently become overly rough and even hit each other.
It is a typical trauma response, she says. “They don’t understand why they do it, but I do.” She has often seen children coping with the trauma of Israeli incursions into the camp through violent play. She doesn’t allow that kind of play in her setting, offering instead cultural and artistic activities as an alternative way to focus their fear and rage.
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With short, black hair and a welcoming presence, Odeh, 30, has the brightness and energy of a young person, but also the tough look of someone who has seen and lived through a great deal. Her job is particularly important to her as someone who remembers growing up during the second Intifada, or uprising. She identifies strongly with the need that children have to heal from trauma through art and play.
Children need safe spaces where they can feel good, she says. “They need a place where they can fly.”
Life for children in Jenin is traumatic. One day, the kids are having fun with an activity in the Freedom Theatre, says Odeh, and the next, there is an armed raid by Israeli forces on the camp – an event which has become far more frequent since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza on October 7.
Facing down Molotov cocktails
The Freedom Theatre itself is no stranger to danger and violence.
Originally called the Stone Theatre, it was founded in 1987, after the first Intifada, by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli activist who died in 1995. Mer-Khamis was born into a Jewish family in 1929 and became a lifelong supporter of the rights of Palestinians, especially children. With her theatre, she hoped to offer children a space for healing and to empower women through the theatre and arts.
The first building which housed the theatre was destroyed in 2002 by Israeli forces during the second Intifada. In 2006, Juliano Mer-Khamis, Arna’s son by her Palestinian Christian husband, Saliba Khamis, reopened the theatre on a new site in Jenin, doubling as a community centre.
Not everyone was in favour, however. In 2009, an unidentified person threw two Molotov cocktail bombs at the theatre while it was empty. Juliano was shot dead by a masked attacker in Jenin in 2011 at the age of 52. His murder was never solved.
Amid the latest crisis, Mustafa Sheta, the tall, broad director of the theatre, says he begins each day in the knowledge that probably nothing he has planned will actually happen.
Sheta has an inviting smile, engaging intensely with you when he talks about his theatre or about Israel’s war on Gaza and frequent raids on the occupied West Bank. These days, that is nearly every time the 43-year-old speaks to visitors at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp, situated in the West Bank.
Two weeks ago – between November 6 and 10 – multiple Israeli military incursions took place in and around Jenin. On November 9, a Thursday, Sheta and theatre staff were inside when a massive raid by Israeli forces took place from midnight until Friday dawn and resumed mid-morning. There was heavy fighting, accompanied by Israeli drone attacks.
Before the big push into Jenin began on Thursday night, there had already been some attacks by Israeli forces during the day. In the evening, the electricity to the camp was cut off and Israeli forces used loudhailers to announce a two-hour window for civilians to evacuate the camp.
That night, children, women and men with flashlights or the light of their mobile phones walked to the Jenin hospital, waiting for the raid to restart. During the night, many children were trapped inside schools in the camp, waiting for the incursion to end so they could be reunited with their families. Fourteen Palestinians, some of whom were fighters, were killed.
Resistance through art
Given the likelihood of armed incursions, therefore, the theatre staff begin each day trying to find out if there is going to be an attack on the camp; Sheta says he needs to know if his audience, his four children – two boys and two girls – his staff and their families will be safe.
It is very difficult to organise regular programmes and he always has to have a plan B. But this is his method of resistance, he says. Indeed, “resistance through art” is the motto of the theatre.
“We also struggle in the fight to free Palestine,” Sheta says. He believes there are many ways to contribute to Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation – armed struggle is just one.
Sheta considers himself a “cultural fighter” but he has not escaped the effects of violence. His father, a high school teacher, was killed by Israeli troops in 2002 in Jenin just one month before Sheta graduated from college – one of his dreams for his children.
Sheta has also been arrested in the past, and has spent eight months in two Israeli prisons, accused of “inciting violence”. He saw that as an opportunity to learn more about the plight of Palestinian prisoners. “The violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, particularly in Jenin, did not start on October 7,” he says.
Mostly, however, he believes in the importance of preserving Palestinian culture and establishing an identity for his people which goes beyond the occupation. “It is time to invest in Palestinian culture. The struggle has to come with many steps, not only with guns.”