In the dormitory of Jenin’s guesthouse, sleep is interrupted by the ringing of gunfire. After a few months in the West Bank, this sound is no longer unfamiliar. Cosy in bed, the bangs feel a long way off. Safe and warm, listening, knowing that others out there are not so secure.
With the break of morning, we learn what happened. The confrontation came about when the Israeli army invaded Jenin refugee camp and abducted Mustafa Sheta. Mustafa is father of three children and secretary of the board of the Freedom Theatre. Nothing is known of his whereabouts, and it could be 40 days – during which he will probably endure psychological and physical torture – before anything will be known.
Thus, the first morning of this year’s Freedom Ride – organised by Jenin’s Freedom Theatre – is a fast induction to the ongoing Nakba. For Palestinians, the catastrophe of 1948 never really ended. To this day, their lives, their homes, their families are always in danger.
Last month Cycle ’48 explored some of Palestine’s hidden histories; we saw the remains of homes and villages, remapping a land which has been dramatically altered since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine between 1947-49. Since that time, Palestinians have suffered a constant process of dispossession, separation, and oppression. Over the coming days, we will be sharing some stories of the present reality in the West Bank: the meanings of occupation, and the many creative responses.
Previously, we wrote about the unfair privilege of being able to visit Palestinians’ homeland when they are not allowed. This time, we have a different sort of privilege – to be joining with some of Palestine’s brightest, most creative and inspiring activists! They can be found in the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp: a hub of creative resistance in Palestine.
Jenin refugee camp is home to around 17,000 people; living in less than one square kilometre. Generations have grown up in the camp, following the mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1948, and the continued denial of the right of return. As we walk around the camp, the maze of buildings and towering concrete is an obvious contrast to the lush hills and fields we visited last month.
As the months turned into years with still no hope of return, the tents became shelters, the shelters became buildings. But these solid structures do not belie any acceptance of this situation as permanent. The right of return remains on everyone’s lips, justice for refugees is at the heart of this struggle.
Today, many of the houses look strangely new – the ‘New Camp’ is evidence of Jenin’s traumatic history. In 2002, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the camp, crushed houses with their residents inside, shot men, women and children indiscriminately. This twelve day siege left an estimated 4,000 people homeless, and a still disputed death toll. We visit a cemetery, in which martyrs from 2002 are buried, neat rows of stones marked with black, red, and green.
As we continue our walk, through the narrow streets, we are greeted with friendly smiles, “you should have come last night…got the live show”, one man jokes. A casual reminder that although tanks are not rolling down these streets, as they did thirteen years ago, people are not secure in their homes. The army regularly enters the camp during the night and takes people without explanation.
In this environment, resistance to the occupation is active and desperate, but its not all about throwing stones at the invading soldiers.
After our visit to the camp, we are treated to a wonderful concert at Al Kamandjati music school. The school works with marginalised children – mostly from the refugee camp, with beautiful results. The Director explained “the occupation does not fight culture directly, but suppresses people so they get to the point where they feel frustrated and defeated…developing artistic and creative talents challenges this sense of hopelessness and allows people to express themselves freely”.
In the evening, Jonathan one of the co-founders of the Freedom Theatre, expresses a similar attitude. He spoke not of the occupation, but of four occupations: by the Israeli military, by the Palestinian Authority, by foreign aid and NGOs, and finally the occupation of the mind – the internalisation of oppression.
The first three are breaking down the traditional communal nature of Palestinian society, encouraging individualism and distrust. Whether its through the perfected ‘divide and rule’ policies of the Israeli government, the neoliberal agenda of the Palestinian Authority, or the destabilising and disempoweing impact of foreign aid, the tight bonds within Palestinian society are weakening.
However, it is the fourth occupation – that of the mind – which the Freedom Theatre work is directed towards. “When the oppressive system is internalised, it is reproduced through the way we relate to each other”, Jonathan explains. “We need to deconstruct oppression, so that we don’t reproduce it.”
Cultural resistance has such a strong role to play in this conflict because it challenges the limits imposed by the occupation. The nature of creative resistance is imagining a different reality, and therefore confronting structures and barriers which appear solid.
In the cramped conditions of Jenin’s refugee camp, with regular invasions from the well-armed, well-equiped Israeli military, the scope for resistance appears limited. Rather than succumb to feelings of suffocation or futility, the Freedom Theatre offers a safe space for people to develop skills, confidence, and – crucially – trust in each other. “Nothing can be organised or mobilised when there is no trust”.
While basic rights such as freedom of movement and freedom of association are systematically denied to Palestinians through check points and harsh repression of peaceful protests, freedom of expression cannot be stopped in the same way.
Exercising and developing creative expression is a powerful tool in building resistance, strengthening resilience and ultimately playing a different role to that which the Israeli propaganda machine has cast for Palestinian youth.
The Freedom Theatre crew emphasise that they support all forms of resistance against this illegal occupation and apartheid: creative resistance is just one stone in the mosaic. Their amazing work decolonising the mind means that laughter, self-expression, and applause ring out in Jenin (as well as gunfire).