Detention of Palestinian writers opens new cultural front in Israel’s war with Hamas

Writer and theatre manager Mustafa Sheta one of 17 cultural figures detained by Israel, which is accused of trying to ‘erase the Palestinian narrative’

Mustafa Sheta, general manager of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp. Photograph: Hannah McCarthy

One morning in early September 2023, Mustafa Sheta, a Palestinian writer and the general manager of the Freedom Theatre, spoke to The Irish Times in the theatre’s empty auditorium in the West Bank city of Jenin. He explained the importance of cultural resistance against Israel’s occupation, as well as his frustrations with the Palestinian movement’s lack of success in securing a state and the Palestinian Authority’s increasing authoritarianism.

Three months later, on December 12th, the theatre was raided at night by Israeli soldiers and its offices ransacked. Hours later, Sheta was arrested in front of his wife and four children, aged 7-15, at his home in Jenin. On the same day, the theatre’s artistic director, Ahmed Tobasi, and a recent theatre graduate, Jamal Abu Joas, were arrested. The two were released days later, with Tobasi describing beatings by the Israeli soldier who detained them. “They treated us like animals,” he was quoted as saying in a post on X by the Freedom Theatre. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) declined to comment on the arrests.

Sheta, however, was not released. On December 22nd, a lawyer was allowed a short meeting with him during which Sheta said Israeli soldiers had interrogated him about his political affiliation and activities. On December 31st, a closed Israeli military court ordered Sheta to be held for four months in administrative detention, a long-standing practice that permits detention without charge or trial for an unlimited amount of time by the Israeli military, on the basis of evidence disclosed to neither the prisoner nor their lawyer for “reasons of national security”.

In April, Sheta’s detention was extended for another four months, without any reason provided, says his wife, Ranin Sheta, speaking on a call from Jenin. “Mustafa’s case is like so many other cases in the West Bank,” she says. “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. Everything can change in a minute.”


Sheta is one of more than 9,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, including 14 writers, detained by Israeli forces following Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel on October 7th last, according to Palestinian prisoners’ groups. Family visits for prisoners, as well as humanitarian visits by the International Red Cross, have been suspended by the Israeli authorities since the war in Gaza began.

Sheta is being held at the Megiddo Prison in Israel. According to Amnesty International, the practice of holding Palestinian prisoners in Israel amounts to forcible transfer and is a breach of international humanitarian law. Ranin, Sheta’s wife, fears his detention will be extended again and is hoping to secure a lawyer to represent him at a military court hearing in August.

Legal representation is expensive. “Some lawyers are taking advantage of the situation,” she says. Two legal visits to Sheta in prison cost 1,500 shekels (€375), nearly the monthly minimum wage in the West Bank (about €470). Sheta passed a message to Ranin through the visiting lawyer saying conditions in prison were difficult and that the Freedom Theatre should continue its work. The IDF declined to comment on Sheta’s detention.

Alongside his work as a theatre manager, Sheta has written about life under military occupation and the regular Israeli military raids on Jenin. Mina Thabet from Pen International, an NGO that promotes freedom of expression and literature, argues that Sheta was targeted because of “his cultural work and writings unveiling the truth about the systematic persecution of Palestinians living under the apartheid and occupation for decades”.

“We have seen increasing targeting of cultural figures, including writers, in a bid to erase the Palestinian narrative and culture,” Thabet told The Irish Times. In total, 17 Palestinian writers are now held in Israeli detention, according to Pen, including eight in administrative detention. Israel now lies behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam on Pen’s Freedom to Write index, which tracks the detention and imprisonment of writers. A spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry declined to comment on the increase in the detention of Palestinian writers and allegations of a crackdown on free speech by Israel.

The Freedom Theatre in Jenin: Staging a critical form of Palestinian resistanceOpens in new window ]

Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem have also faced a crackdown on free speech and jail time under Israel’s counter-terrorism legislation, which criminalises speech-related offences such as expressing sympathy with terrorism or incitement to commit terrorism. In November, the Israeli government amended the law to criminalise the “consumption of publications of a terrorist organisation”.

Adalah, a Palestinian-run human rights organisation and legal centre in Israel, said this would effectively criminalise “thoughts and feelings” and described a “widespread and co-ordinated” effort between “government offices, Israeli institutions, and far-right groups” to target Palestinian citizens of Israel and those “who dare to express dissent against the military’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza”.

More than 400 people – the vast majority Palestinian – have been arrested in Israel and East Jerusalem for speech-related offences under the legislation since October 7th, according to a response from the Israeli police to a freedom of information request submitted by Adalah. According to Adalah’s court monitoring, Palestinian citizens and residents of East Jerusalem have received sentences of up to 18 months in jail for social media posts or messages deemed “sympathetic to a terrorist organisation”.

Emergency regulations introduced by the Israeli parliament in November mean that pretrial court hearings scheduled for Palestinian security prisoners are predominantly held via video call. Miriam Azem, Adalah’s communications and international advocacy associate, says the lack of in-person hearings and the suspension of family and NGO visits reduce prisoners’ opportunities to disclose mistreatment in prison.

Adalah has documented cases where prisoners appear to be threatened or beaten by prison staff during online hearings. The office of the Israeli prime minister did not respond to a request for comment on allegations of abuse and deteriorating conditions facing Palestinian prisoners in Israeli detention facilities.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners Society, 18 Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli prisons since October 7th. Azem says Adalah’s clients have described beatings, sleep deprivation and a decrease in both the quality and quantity of food being served in Israeli prisons. “We’re seeing significant weight loss but also food with dirt or that is uncooked being served to prisoners,” she says. “One of our clients described it as not even suitable for animals.”

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