In the past six weeks, the Jenin Freedom Theatre, still recovering from the unsolved 4 April murder of its co-founder and mentor, Juliano Mer-Khamis, has faced a new stumbling block: the Israeli military.
First, at 3:30 in the morning on 27 July,Israeli soldiers arrived at the Freedom Theatre to arrest Adnan Naghnaghiye, Location Manager of the Theatre, and Bilal Saadi, chairperson of the Theatre’s Board of Directors in Jenin. Soldiers further threw stones and huge blocks of concrete at the building, shattering several windows. In the Theatre’s press release, night guard Ahmad Nasser Matahen relates how “they told me to open the door to the theatre. They told me to raise my hands and forced me to take my pants down. I thought my time had come, that they would kill me.” When General Manager Jacob Gough and Theatre co-founder Jonatan Stanczak arrived on the scene, they were “forced at gunpoint to squat next to a family with four small children surrounded by approximately 50 heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Whenever we tried to tell them that they are attacking a cultural venue and arresting members of the theatre,” adds Jonatan, we were told to shut up and they threatened to kick us, I tried to contact the civil administration of the army to clarify the matter but the person in charge hung up on me.””
Adnan and Bilal were detained without charges for almost a month, denied access to a lawyer for over two weeks, and subjected to beatings and sleep deprivation, all as part of a supposed investigation into the murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Then, on 6 August, Rami Awni Hwayel, a 20-year old acting student who currently holds a lead role in the theatre’s adaption of Waiting for Godot, was handcuffed, blindfolded, and taken away by the Israeli army at the Shave Shomeron checkpoint between Nablus and Jenin. Though the army quickly determined he had nothing to do with Juliano’s murder, he was held for a month pending investigation of a confession, extracted during interrogation, that he had illegally sought employment in Israel for 10 days many years ago. In an open letter to the Israeli Embassy in London, Jacob Gough relates how at a court hearing on 17 August, the military judge “stated that the police and army were wrong to have picked up Rami and spent this time as they have on this matter, and that Rami obviously has no connection to the murder of Juliano, however, in what just seems to be an attempt to ‘save face’, the Israeli authorities are looking to imprison him under the aforementioned charge.” The army usually punishes perpetrators of this ‘crime’ by sending them back across the border; for Rami, who, like Adnan and Bilal, was initially held for over two weeks without a lawyer, it will now be more difficult than it usually is for a resident of Jenin refugee camp to secure a visa to tour Waiting for Godot throughout America this September.
Finally, at 2am on 22 August, the Israeli army arrived in Jenin, surrounded the Theatre and entered the home of the Nagnaghiye family, where they beat and arrested Mohammed, theatre security guard and brother of Adnan. They also ransacked and trashed all three floors of the Nagnaghiye family home: “Furniture was thrown to the floor and broken, and there was even dog excrement on the floor. The army also took another three residents of the camp on the same night.”
The stated reason for all of these arrests is an Israeli investigation into the unsolved murder of Juliano Mer-Khamis. However, in an interview given on 3 September, Jacob Gough related that “initially [the army] gave the normal rubbish excuses, like ‘they’re acting against the security of the region’. We then found out they are supposedly doing an investigation into the murder of Juliano. But then I don’t count investigations where you kidnap people and treat them inhumanely, treat them to sleep deprivation- for a week they didn’t sleep- and then you try to get them to confess. Like this they work. That’s not an investigation, that’s trying to pin it on somebody.”
Indeed, Jacob says in an Open Letter to the Israeli Security Apparatus that “in every one of [Bilal’s] court hearings so far, when the Israeli security services have requested an extension of detention, it has been noted in court documents that no information pertaining to the murder of Juliano has been gained from interrogation”, and that “on Sunday 14 August Adnan was in court for another extension of detention, [and] the judge gave the security services an additional 8 days but stated that they needed to wrap the interrogation up as they have not gained much from this time before.”
In addition, the inhumane treatment inflicted on the detainees casts doubt on the real motives of the Israeli army. On 22 August, the same day that Mohammed Nagnaghiye was taken, the two men detained on 27 July – Mohammed’s brother Adnan and Bilal Saadi- were released with no charges filed against them. In the open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob relates that “finally after 2 weeks [Bilal’s] lawyer was allowed access to him…he told her that they had treated him ‘inhumanely’. As of now we only know that they were using disorientation techniques (he had no idea whether it was night or day) and whilst having him shackled painfully and after denying him food for a long period of time they then put food in front of him, obviously with no possible way for him to eat with dignity.” Adnan had been “in much a similar position to Bilaal, but spent 16 days without access to a lawyer.”
Israel also appears to be deliberately impeding the movement of Freedom Theatre actors in and out of the West Bank. In our interview last Saturday at the Theatre, Jacob related that members of Rami’s theatre troupe, which plans to tour Waiting for Godot through America in September, “have all had to have visa application meetings with the American consulate. The American consulate doesn’t come to the West Bank, so these students have to go to Jerusalem and Jordan. Jerusalem is a lot easier. In the past these students have never had problems getting to Jerusalem, and suddenly- stopped. None of these children can go, they are all perceived as a security threat.” In a phone interview on 5 September, Jacob reiterated that “there is no doubt in my mind that this is related [to the army’s arrests]…it all occurred at exactly the same time…[this is] another part of the Israeli army crackdown. I’m sure it’s connected.”
In the Jenin refugee camp “there is fear, fear of being associated with the theatre, [because] we have had someone killed, lots of people arrested…”. But fear seems to be a common factor on both sides of the equation. “After Juliano’s death”, Jacob explains, “it was shown how much support the Freedom Theatre has in the world, and not just people. Politicians, organizations, media as well…[one] of the most dangerous things for Israel, is showing that places like the Freedom Theatre can reach really far…we’ve had the actor’s union in Britain, actors’ unions in America, France, Germany- the Parliament in Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, at least- Congressmen in America as well- people phoning the Israeli embassies and sending them letters all the time, asking what’s happening, what are you doing to the Freedom Theatre. The Israeli embassies started sending back replies, which I’ve never seen before! I’ve never seen the Israeli embassy reply to these kinds of letters, they just go whatever…we don’t care. It feels like we’re hitting a nerve, and we try to harness that.”
On 1 August , the General Secretary of Equity, the trade union representing 36,500 UK based performers, actors and creative workers, wrote to the Israeli Embassy in London to ask why the Freedom Theatre’s “location manager, Adnan Naghnaghiye, and Board member, Bilal Saadi, “are currently being detained following an attack on the theatre”. The letter concludes that “as an organisation which campaigns for freedom of expression, we are obviously very distressed about these reports. I therefore urge you to ensure that the individuals concerned are released immediately and safely returned to Jenin.”
Two weeks later, on 16 August, Equity received a reply from the Israeli Embassy. Citing the murder of Mer-Khamis, the letter states that “the authorities have instigated profound and comprehensive investigations which led them to the arrest you mention in your letter. Although we are aware that damage to the property was caused during the arrest, this was not intentional.”
In his open letter to the Israeli Embassy, Jacob replies that “though it is good of the ambassador to admit damage was caused to the theatre, to say throwing rocks at windows is unintentional is not just wrong, but also a lie. Anyhow, even unintentional harm/damage is at the very least negligent.” An even more curious lapse on the Israeli Embassy’s part, however, is that they ignored completely Equity’s complaint regarding the arrests of Adnan and Bilal, and instead spoke of the arrest of Rami, which was not even mentioned in Equity’s letter and which had nothing to do with ‘damage to the property’ of the theatre, because it occurred far from the theatre! Through this strategic move, the Embassy seeks to deflect attention away from the army’s mistreatment of Adnan and Bilal, and onto “[Rami’s] involvement in a number of other unsolved crimes”- the heinous crimes, namely, involved in crossing the Green Line briefly to bring a little money back to his impoverished refugee camp.
If Rami and his classmates are able to tour ‘Waiting for Godot’ through the US this September, “the hope”, says Jacob in his reply to the Embassy, “is [that] they will manage to get offers of scholarships to continue their training, a rare opportunity and ray of light for these youth who have spent their whole lives under occupation…This whole farce of court proceedings puts this trip for [Rami] in a very precarious position and further works to undermine the work of The Freedom Theatre, which I would say seems to be more the goal of the Israeli authorities than a genuine investigation into the murder of our friend and leader, Juliano Mer Khamis.”
When Juliano founded the Freedom Theatre in Jenin in 2006, he hoped to use performance and art to show to the world a Palestinian people and their vibrant, creative culture and self-identity. In April 2006, four years after the Battle of Jenin, in which 15-20% of the camp’s infrastructure was destroyed by the Israeli army, Mer-Khamis said in an interview with author Arthur Nelsen in London that “in Jenin – especially in Jenin – something is happening, in the good sense of the word. There is a universalist discourse, an international happening…an international campaign around a new kind of resistance…we want to be part of this third Intifada which is on the way in a way to hopefully influence at least some of the people in Jenin camp, towards non-violent, cultural international resistance.”
The Freedom Theatre’s hope remains that, after the violent suppression of the first two Intifadas, a successful Palestinian revolution today must revitalize Palestinian culture and self-identity, and inspire international recognition not merely of a Palestinian state and governing power, but first and foremost of a Palestinian people. On 4 April 2005, one year before the founding of the Freedom Theatre, Juliano said that “we are facing the end of the destruction of the Palestinian people by the Israeli forces. We are in a situation today where not only the political and the economic infrastructure are destroyed, the Israelis are destroying the neurological system of the society, which is culture, identity, communication. We felt that creating a project which will deal with the arts, with cinema, with theatre, with the media activities, computers, web sites, is the best way to fight this deconstruction of the identity of the Palestinian, which is deliberately done in the last year by the Israelis. Israel is pushing back the Palestinian people into the Stone Age…communicating with the outside world, bringing people from the outside world, breaking the wall down, if not physically, metaphorically- is creating the grounds for hope. We cannot bring hope, hope- we cannot bring it in a sack or a package. We can create the grounds so people can build up hope, and this is our task today, to create the grounds for those children.”
In the face of Israeli army harassment, Jenin’s Freedom Theatre has received an outpouring of support, both internationally and within Palestine. In addition to the ferocious and impassioned letter-writing campaign, it has received many donations from abroad to support increasing legal fees.
Additionally, most recent events may indicate that, in response to international pressure, the army is relaxing its crackdown on the Theatre. Mohammed Nagnaghiye, who was arrested on 22 August, received a 15-day extension of his arrest on the 29th, but was then unexpectedly released on 3 September. He did not report any abuse at the hands of the army, and was quickly allowed access to a lawyer. In addition, two technicians at the Theatre, Mohammed Saadi and Ahmad Matahen, along with an acting student, Momeen Syatat, were told to hand themselves in to the Salem military base outside of Jenin by 1 September. The Theatre wrote on its website, “to walk into the arms of the Israeli security service quite often means disappearing from the surface of the earth, never knowing when you will come back and knowing that you are most certainly facing harsh treatment. We demand that Mohammed, Ahmad, and Momeen be treated no worse and no better than any Israeli citizen brought in to participate in a civil criminal investigation. Their legal rights, as stipulated by international law, must be honoured.”
Thankfully, all three residents of Jenin refugee camp were simply asked a few questions, and then released. Over the phone on 4 September, Jacob noted that “the pressure that the theatre put on and that our friends around the world put on, seems to have made a difference. Otherwise the army would’ve kept acting the way it usually does…They even said to some of the guys who went the other day ‘we like the Freedom Theatre, we support the Freedom Theatre!’”
Indeed, at strategic moments Israel does claim to support the Freedom Theatre. Juliano was, after all, an Israeli citizen and well-known Israeli actor; in addition, token gestures of goodwill towards Palestinian arts initiatives bolster Israel’s public image. In reply to Equity’s letter, the Israeli Embassy in London spoke of how “Mr Juliano Mer-Khamis, the director of the theatre, was shot and killed in his car by masked terrorists…Mr. Mer-Khamis…taught alternatives to violence to Jenin’s youth…following his death, the Israeli authorities took it upon themselves to solve his murder and bring his murderers to trial.” In his open reply to the Embassy, however, Jacob retorts that “as there is no evidence or lead or knowledge of who may have committed this attack, it is rather presumptuous of the Israeli Embassy to say it was a Palestinian. Likewise we don’t comment on any theories that it may have been an Israeli…Juliano [son of an Israeli mother and a Palestinian father] was a symbol of co-operation that served very well to show that Jewish-Israelis can live and work with Palestinians, something many far-right Zionists would not like to see…”
In addition, though he taught alternatives to violence, Juliano never tried to teach alternatives to resistance- throughout his life he remained unequivocally opposed to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. As he said in 2006, shortly after the founding of the Theatre, “What we [are] doing in the theatre is not trying to be a replacement or an alternative to the resistance of the Palestinians in the struggle for liberation. Just the opposite. This must be clear…We are joining, by all means, the struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people, which is our liberation struggle.”
It is this commitment to resistance that motivates Israel to crack down on the Freedom Theatre. As the Theatre continues, in the memory of Juliano, to support the struggle for the revitalization of the Palestinian people, it remains to be seen whether the Israeli powers will continue to impede its progress.