On a Friday night in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern occupied West Bank, locals chat among themselves outside the Freedom Theatre before taking their seats for the night’s performance. The music begins and the chatter dims. Seven members of the Palestinian Comedy Club enter the stage dancing, before delivering jokes and raps on love and life in Palestine.
As Ebaa Monther begins her skit, the audience falls quiet. The Syrian comedian from the occupied Golan Heights shouts at God, questioning why she’s from this land and why her ex-boyfriend left without any explanation. A few members of the audience leave and on their way out criticise the theatre’s general manager, Mustafa Sheta, for Monther’s religious irreverence. “Some people consider that speech between God and a human must come through prayer – they can’t accept it as a joke ... Not everyone likes having women and men that can dance and sing and say what they want,” says Sheta the next morning at the theatre. “They don’t usually face this type of speech – and that’s important because it shows them there is another type of culture.”
The Freedom Theatre aims to promote cultural forms of resistance in Jenin camp, one of the most deprived areas of the West Bank and a bastion of Palestinian militancy. The theatre and community centre was opened in 2006 by the Palestinian-Israeli actor Juliano Mer Khamis, who coined the phrase “The third intifada will be a cultural one”. He founded the theatre with Jonatan Stanzack, a Swedish-Israeli activist, and Zakaria Zubeidi, a former commander of the militant al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade.
In 2011, Mer Khamis was murdered in a gun attack by a masked assailant in Jenin camp. Zubeidi has been detained in an Israeli prison since 2019.* Both men’s faces appear at the road entrance to the theatre, above other Palestinian cultural and resistance figures.
With few economic opportunities for its 17,000 residents, Jenin camp has long been a fertile recruitment ground for Palestinian militants. Already disillusioned with the Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous government led by Mahmoud Abbas which administers parts of the West Bank, many teenage boys and young men in the camp have also shunned factionalised Palestinian groups. In 2021, they formed the Jenin Brigade, which draws its members from a cross-section of Palestinian groups, including Fatah’s militant wing and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Over the last year, the camp has faced increasingly frequent and intense Israeli military raids targeting these militants. On July 2nd, as the Freedom Theatre was rehearsing a play based on Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy The Suppliants for this month’s feminist theatre festival, the Israeli military began its most intense operation in Jenin camp in 20 years. By the end of the 48-hour raid – involving 1,000 soldiers and aerial strikes on the densely populated camp – 12 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier were dead and more than 100 people were injured. During the operation, Israeli snipers were positioned on the theatre’s roof and five cars in its yard were burnt.
“They changed the nature of the Freedom Theatre space from safety and joy to somewhere people are scared to be,” says Sheta.
After the deadly raid, the theatre organised activities in the camp for the children and provided stationery to young boys. One notebook that was distributed had a multicolour design that resembled the rainbow flag used by the LGBTQ+ pride movement; it sparked a viral video accusing the Freedom Theatre of promoting homosexuality in Jenin camp. “It was a very sensitive situation,” says Sheta, who had long conversations with camp residents to defuse the situation.
The theatre often adapts an idea to suit the culture of Jenin – “I need people to believe in it – not be surprised and shocked by an idea that comes from Europe or the West and isn’t related to Islam,” says Sheta. “You need to balance ideas about freedom and liberation with your people, because you work for those people.” During Friday prayers, the local mosques in Jenin still regularly discourage people from attending the theatre as it provides a space for men and women to meet. Sheta adopts a “snowball” approach that involves the community in the theatre’s new initiatives. When he began developing the feminist theatre festival, Sheta first contacted the local women’s rights organisation in Jenin -”I told them: I need to use your logos in my programme, so I’m not alone.”
Sheta is preoccupied about what sort of Palestinian state will exist after the occupation ends. “I don’t accept, for example, a religious country in my land after all of this struggle,” says Sheta. “I look for Palestine to be a free space for any person ... No one supports ending this occupation and this colonialism in order to bring in a dictatorship against human rights.”
The theatre faced an arson attack when it performed George Orwell’s Animal Farm in 2009 to discuss the corruption of socialist ideals and the close security relationship – often viewed by Palestinians as a form of collaboration – between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. Sheta believes there is a lack of reflection within the Palestinian resistance movement and the strategies it has used: “Why don’t we achieve our goals? Why are we under occupation after all of these years? ... We need to vocalise criticism of the Palestinian Authority. We need to consider our relations with other countries and how we put the Palestinian issue on the national agenda of other countries.”
The theatre relies on donations and small grants from foundations and NGOs such as Action Aid, which is supporting September’s feminist theatre festival. Along with many other Palestinian organisations, it lost its EU funding in 2020 when it refused to sign a new funding agreement that listed several groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as terrorist organisations – this language was viewed by the groups as biased against Palestinian resistance movements. Since losing its EU funding, Sheta has reduced the theatre’s employees from 13 to three, while volunteer housing has been cut from five guest houses to one apartment.
The frequent military operations surrounding the theatre make its work increasingly difficult. “Sometimes, I feel miserable,” says Sheta, “I think: I can’t work this way.” As the Palestinian-Israeli actress Salwa Nakkara performed La Dentelle on September 19th as part of the feminist theatre festival, the Israeli military began another lethal raid. The power to the theatre was cut. “We continued the play with phone lights,” said Ahmed Tobasi, the theatre’s artistic director, in an online video filmed during the raid.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) told The Irish Times that “armed gunmen opened fire at IDF and Israel Border Police forces during a counterterrorism activity in the Jenin Camp” and the forces responded with live fire while separate IDF units on the ground “struck a number of additional assailants who endangered the forces”. By the end of the night, three Palestinians were dead and 30 were injured, some critically. No Israeli security personnel were injured.
Nisha Abdulla, an Indian playwright who attended La Dentelle, wrote on Facebook afterwards: “All of us had one ear to the stage and one ear to the door, wondering what will burst through it.”
* This story was edited on Tuesday, October 3rd, 2023, to remove a reference to Zubeidi being held “without trial”. He was detained in 2019 and charged with taking part in two shooting attacks against Israeli buses in the West Bank. While still awaiting trial in 2021, he took part in a prison escape, for which he was subsequently convicted and jailed for five years.