By Max Budovitch:
The Freedom Theatre is nestled among the alleyways and concrete houses of the Jenin Refugee Camp in the north part of the West Bank. The Theatre, a hub of artistic and community activity, was founded in 2006 by Juliano Mer Khamis, whose mother, Arna Mer, first established a children’s theatre in Jenin in the late 1980s. An area that only eight years ago witnessed some of the bloodiest conflict between Palestinians and Israelis during the 2002 Battle of Jenin is now home to the Theatre, which gives residents of Jenin the opportunity to direct, act, and write plays and participate in other dramatic activities. Although the Palestinian-Israeli conflict continues to take its toll in human life, the Palestinian resistance in the West Bank is increasingly drawing upon peaceful forms of activism.
An unbroken Palestinian tradition, the resistance has taken on many different forms, both violent and peaceful. Although these activities began when Palestinian national sentiments came into conflict with Zionism before the turn of the last century, the resistance in the West Bank has grown considerably since Israel’s occupation of the territory began in 1967. Hani Masri, a Ramallah-based independent columnist for al-Ayyam newspaper, explained: “Resistance is the right of the Palestinian people in all its forms… and has been practiced by all generations.
The Palestinian resistance in the West Bank developed in earnest after Israel’s capture of the territory from Jordan in 1967. The resistance boiled over into mass mobilization in two large-scale uprisings, known as the First and Second Intifada. The First Intifada lasted from 1987 to 1993 and was famously characterized by protests and stone throwing at Israeli military vehicles and personnel. The Second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2006, saw the widespread use of suicide bombings and shootings against Israeli civilian and military targets.
The dominant form of the resistance in the West Bank which has recently taken hold, a popular, peaceful movement, is a reactionary departure from the past. Hassan Khreisheh, the independent deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Committee, has called for “a popular Intifada, in which all levels of the Palestinian people would be involved… They would all take part in resisting the Occupation in peaceful ways.” The Freedom Theatre stands as a prime example of a peaceful resistance movement that has flourished since the end of the Second Intifada.
Pushing for Peace
Zakaria Zubeidi, once a child in Arna Mer’s children’s theatre in the 1980s, cannot identify the moment when he made a conscious decision to join the resistance. “It’s not that I decided to join the resistance—it’s that I was protecting it the whole time,” Zubeidi said. A native of Jenin, historically one of the most unstable cities in the West Bank, Zubeidi grew up in a volatile environment. After Arna Mer’s theatre dissolved during the First Intifada and the disappointment over the peace talks of the 1990s settled in, he joined the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the military wing of yasser Arafat’s Fatah party. From 2001 to 2006, Zubeidi served as a commander of the Brigades, which Israel and the united States consider a terrorist organization. But as the Second Intifada waned, Zubeidi decided that the time for violence had come to a close. The West Bank lay in shambles, and frequent attempts on Zubeidi’s life made the situation dire. He was offered amnesty by Israel and Fatah and soon become a major supporter of the Freedom Theatre, which has become a center for the post-Intifada cultural resistance.
Zubeidi’s resistance activities did not end with the Intifada. “My responsibility was the protection of the Palestinian people and the protection of the Jenin Refugee Camp,” he said, speaking of his time as a commander in the Brigades. He now argues that the cultural resistance is not only a mode of justified activism, but also a form of “promoting the voice of the Palestinian people to the world.”
At the Theatre, the voices of an improvised rap group echo across the patio and a young boy runs from building to building with a video camera capturing the assembly of a theater set in one room, the gathering of friends in another, and the interview with visiting musicians in a third. By providing the residents of the Jenin Refugee Camp a place to create art, the Theatre has created a space for learning about Palestinian culture and vocalizing it to the world.
Masri believes that the evolution of the resistance and the changing activities of figures like Zubeidi are symptoms of circumstance. “Any form of resistance which is employed—the popular form, [the peaceful form], or the armed form—this is determined by the surrounding circumstances… as well as Arab and national support,” he said. Khreisheh explained that contemporary violent resistance “does not deliver a lot to the Palestinian people.” Circumstances and support for the violent resistance seem to have ended.
Despite the blossoming of a peaceful wave of resistance activities, there is a lack of consensus between partisan politicians and the independent public over how resistance should be applied at this crucial point in the Palestinian bid for statehood. The recent collaboration between elements of Mahmoud Abbas’ PalestinianNational Authority and the Israeli government in attempts to stabilize Palestinian urban areas has sparked debate. Many independents in the government as well as parts of the general population believe that the collaboration has weakened the resistance, while Fatah politicians generally view it as a positive step in resisting Israeli control of security in the West Bank and realizing national autonomy. The debate centers around a defining question: is to collaborate to cease to resist?
Ghassan Khatib, the director of the Government Media Center under the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah, believes that building a viable Palestinian state requires strong infrastructure, which would entail working with Israel to develop the Palestinian economy. “Building the institutions of the state is… useful in terms of convincing the international community that we are not only deserv[ing] of… statehood, but also that we can govern ourselves,” he said. The prime example remains the cooperation between the Palestinian National Authority and the Israeli government in creating and supporting the Palestinian Security Forces in the West Bank to ensure physical and economic peace. Tareq Jarrar, a native of Jenin and an activist at the Freedom Theatre, agrees with Khatib that there is a need for infrastructure, even if he remains uncertain about the extent of collaboration. “It’s hard to consider politics without economy,” he said. Strong state institutions and a strong economy are necessary for a peaceful resistance—one based on culture and popular support—to be a viable option.
Any form of resistance which is employed—the popular form, [the peaceful form], or the armed form—this is determined by the surrounding circumstances.”
The tradition of resistance is the tradition of identity itself, in its varying formsand evolving varieties. After seeing family, friends, and Israeli civilians and soldiers dieduring the Second Intifada, Zubeidi concededthat “every Palestinian revolution hasfailed. We don’t have our freedom. However,we still exist.”
As the population of the West Bank continues to recover from the destruction of the Second Intifada and witnesses the beginningsof a popular and peaceful form of theresistance, there are deep conflicts over the future evolution of the resistance and theinstitutions and strategy of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority. “A lot of people are thinking [about] whether the Intifada achieved its goals or not,” said Jarrar. Zubeidi acknowledged that the status quo—the continued support of peaceful forms of protest like the Theatre—may not be permanent: “If the Israelis don’t give the Palestinians their rights, there will be a problem.” A decade has been lost to activism that proved both destructive and ineffective. Another lost decade characterized by continued violence or a government operating under occupation may not be tolerated.
Max Budovitch ’13 is a History major in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.