How a West Bank Palestinian theater went from symbol of hope to casualty of war
JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — All actor Jamal Abu Joas could think about, as Israeli soldiers beat and dragged him out of his house last month, was a recent play performed at the theater where he works — a dark comedy about Israeli jails.
It was an Arabic adaptation of a 1973 play set in apartheid-era South Africa called "The Island." In the original, the characters are imprisoned on Cape Town's notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years behind bars. In the version performed last year at the West Bank's Freedom Theatre, the characters were Palestinians jailed in Israel.
"It's a comedy that speaks to the reality," Abu Joas, 23, explains. "There is no life in prison. They just keep you alive for another day."
That's something Abu Joas would soon learn himself.
On Dec. 13, he became one of what human rights groups and Palestinians officials estimate is more than 6,000 Palestinians arrested by Israeli forces in the West Bank since the start of the Gaza war. Abu Joas was never charged. He denies any wrongdoing, and was released after eight days.
In addition to arresting Abu Joas and two of his colleagues, Israeli soldiers also ransacked, vandalized and forced the closure of the Freedom Theatre. Founded in 2006 in a Palestinian refugee camp that's been a hub of two violent intifada uprisings, the theater has been celebrated by actors and playwrights worldwide.
Now it's one of the latest casualties of violence that's spread across the West Bank since Oct. 7. There are near-daily Israeli military incursions and even some airstrikes on United Nations refugee camps, including in the Jenin camp, where the Freedom Theatre is based. The United Nations says more than 350 Palestinians have been killed, along with five Israelis, since the war began.
The theater's artistic director, Ahmed Tobasi, arrested with Abu Joas, was released within 24 hours. But general manager Mustafa Sheta remains in Israeli custody. The theater says he's been sentenced to six months of administrative detention. That's a classification Israel uses, under martial law, to hold suspects without charge.
Allegations of collective punishment in a West Bank refugee camp
Israel says its raids on the West Bank are preemptive, aimed at thwarting another attack like the one on Oct. 7, when Hamas-led militants crossed from Gaza into Israel and killed some 1,200 people.
The Jenin refugee camp was built for Palestinians displaced in 1948, when Israel was created. It's home to about 24,000 residents, according to the U.N. There are four schools and one health center. It looks like any other bustling, lower-income urban area in the occupied West Bank.
But for decades, the camp has also been a hub for militants fighting Israeli occupation. Gunshots rang out there when NPR visited in mid-January. (Locals said it was their own "practice" fire). The camp is an infamously restive place, and the target of many previous Israeli military operations.
An Israeli military spokesperson told NPR the Dec. 13 raid on the Freedom Theatre was part of "counterterrorism activity" in the surrounding refugee camp. The spokesperson, who, according to military policy, declined to be named, also would not comment on individual arrests but said hundreds of suspects were detained, and those deemed uninvolved with terrorism were released within days.
But as in Gaza, where health officials say more than 25,000 people have been killed in Israeli attacks, Israel has been accused by the U.N. and human rights groups of collective punishment in the West Bank. Since 1967, its approximately 3 million residents have lived behind barbed wire and barriers, under Israeli occupation and martial law.
"They broke my front door at two o'clock in the morning, screaming about Hamas, and beat me in front of my children," says Ashraf Jaradat, 40, whose shoe store about a block from the Freedom Theatre was destroyed in the same December raid. "I was blindfolded, naked. They beat me while interrogating me."
He showed NPR the damage to his front door, where he says a soldier used the butt of a rifle to break in. Jaradat says he was released without charge after three days. His son, arrested with him, remains in Israeli custody, he says. An Israeli military spokesperson declined to comment on their case.
In a report published last month, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights said it has documented "mass arbitrary arrests, detentions and reported torture and other ill-treatment by [Israeli forces], raising concerns of collective punishment."
The arrests, the U.N. says, are regularly accompanied by "physical and psychological abuse and humiliation of detainees."
Since Oct. 7, Israeli bulldozers have been rolling into the Jenin camp almost nightly. They've torn up asphalt roads, severed electricity lines and punctured sewage pipes.
In front of Jaradat's house, there's a roughly 10-foot-wide crater, pooling with raw sewage. He says he's left without an income since his shop was destroyed. "I'm a broken man," he says.
Jaradat admits two of his adult nephews are members of what he calls the armed resistance against Israel, and have been in Israeli prison since last year. But he distanced himself from them.
"There are about 20 armed men in this refugee camp where we are," Jaradat says, gesturing to the houses around his. "How can you punish the other 20,000 of us for their actions?"
After an Israeli raid, the Palestinian theater bears Star of David graffiti
When Israeli troops retreated from the Freedom Theatre on Dec. 13 after an all-night raid, staff found the facility in shambles.
Trophies from drama festivals in Turkey and Japan were still strewn across broken shelves littered with glass shards when NPR visited in mid-January. Framed black-and-white photographs of Palestinian children were smashed, but a portrait of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin still hung on one wall, next to a bumper sticker reading "I ♥ Palestine."
In the back of the theater, on a white wall where films are normally screened, a star of David was spray-painted in bright red. Another, in black paint, was scrawled across an Arabic and English poster outside the theater's front gate, advertising a feminist drama festival.
Staff say the graffiti was left behind by Israeli soldiers. They also defaced memorial posters for local residents killed in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, neighbors say.
An Israeli military spokesperson confirmed that troops entered the Freedom Theatre on the night of Dec. 12-13, and said the raid was part of "counterterrorism activity" in the surrounding refugee camp. The spokesperson would not comment on individual cases, but said hundreds of suspects were detained, and that those deemed uninvolved with terrorism were released within days.
As for the graffiti, the spokesperson referred NPR to previous statements by military brass prohibiting vandalism by soldiers. In Gaza, Israeli commanders reportedly forced at least one group of soldiers to erase or paint over their graffiti.
In Jenin, some residents have tried to scrub out the graffiti. In one spot, they spray-painted the word "Palestine" in Arabic, and two hearts next to a star of David.
Jenin's Freedom Theatre has a bloody history
This theater is no stranger to violence.
Founded in 1987 by Arna Mer Khamis, an Israeli peace activist, the theater, then known as the Stone Theater, was destroyed in an Israeli military operation in 2002. Four years later, the late founder's son, Juliano Mer Khamis — an Israeli and Palestinian actor, director, filmmaker and activist of Jewish and Christian descent – reinvented and reopened the theater his mother had begun.
But in 2011, Mer Khamis was shot dead by masked gunmen. His murder remains unsolved.
The theater, led in the years since by a Palestinian team, mostly from Jenin, has flourished. It's registered as a nonprofit under the Palestinian Authority, the local governing body in the West Bank. Its work has gained global renown and support — it's also registered as a foundation in Sweden, and has an international advisory board. The Israeli raid last month drew international condemnation, with protests by Broadway actors, British playwrights and others.
This winter, the theater is still holding acting workshops for children – but in a location outside the refugee camp, in the city of Jenin. Organizers have canceled performances at the theater itself. On top of damage the theater sustained directly, it's too dangerous to ask audiences to come into the camp, especially at night, with near-daily Israeli incursions.
When actor Abu Joas was freed from Israeli jail in late December, he returned to an empty theater.
In mid-January, when NPR visited, he stood on an empty stage, alone, his shaky voice echoing through the empty auditorium. He described how Israeli soldiers burst into his home, searched through his belongings and his phone — and how his young niece watched them haul him away.
Turning back toward rows of empty seats, where audiences once watched him perform, his voice brightened.
"The first time I was here, I was scared — and I forgot my lines," Abu Joas recalls, laughing. "It's a happy memory."
He says he'd like to find a way to make art — perhaps even comedy — out of this experience. But he's unsure when, or how, he'll be able act again.
"Inshallah," he says, God willing, "we will make something from this."
NPR producer Nuha Musleh contributed to this report from Jenin.
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