The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a popular symbol of peace and hope in the occupied West Bank, has been raided, vandalised and painted with Israeli religious and political symbols.
In a film screening room inside the theatre, the Star of David has been daubed on the wall with spray paint while graffiti also depicting the Star of David and a menorah (a Hanukkah candle holder) has been scrawled on the outside wall.
The Israeli military raid on the theatre took place on the night of December 12 and the early hours of December 13. Its two directors were arrested that night and the next morning. One of them, Ahmed Tobasi, was released after 14 hours, but the other, Mostafa Sheta, remains in detention. He is believed to have been taken to the Megiddo military prison in northern Israel, Tobasi said.
This is not the first time the community landmark has come under attack.
The theatre has stood as a symbol of hope for residents of Jenin ever since it was first founded as the Stone Theatre in 1987 after the first Intifada by Arna Mer-Khamis, an Israeli peace activist who died in 1995.
Mer-Khamis was a lifelong supporter of the rights of Palestinians, especially children. With her theatre, she hoped to offer children a space for healing and to empower women through the theatre and arts.
The first building housing the theatre was destroyed in 2002 by Israeli forces during the second Intifada. In 2006, Juliano Mer-Khamis, Arna’s son by her Palestinian Christian husband, Saliba Khamis, reopened the theatre on a new site in Jenin, and it doubled as a community centre.
Not everyone was a fan, however. In 2009, an unidentified person threw two Molotov cocktails at the theatre while it was empty. Juliano was shot dead by a masked attacker in Jenin in 2011 at the age of 52. His killing was never solved.
Since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza on October 7, tensions have mounted in the West Bank with regular and often brutal raids carried out by Israeli forces and strict curfews placed on Palestinian residents. Armed settlers and soldiers have blocked roads with trenches and frequently fired shots at anyone stepping outside their homes.
About 58 Palestinians, including children, have been killed during 15 military incursions on the camp and the city.
‘No questions – they just took me’
During all this, the Freedom Theatre kept going – until Tuesday night last week. It particularly offered a space for children to heal from trauma through activities led by the theatre’s workers.
The theatre raid was part of a military operation in Jenin by Israeli forces that began on December 12 and lasted for three days. During that time, 500 Palestinians were arrested and 100 continue to be detained, said Tobasi, who himself was held in poor conditions.
“How can we continue existing this way?” Tobasi, 39, asked. It was not the first time he had been detained. He spent four years in Israeli prisons after he was captured during a 2002 siege of Jenin.
Born and raised in the Jenin refugee camp, Tobasi has been coming to the theatre since he was a child. He was part of the first group of children who participated in the Stone Theatre’s activities.
Last Wednesday about 11am, however, Israeli forces broke down the front door of his home in Jenin and arrested him along with his brother.
He told Al Jazeera how he was handcuffed and blindfolded before soldiers kicked him in the head and stomach. He was then taken to the Al-Jalama checkpoint, north of Jenin, where he was held in the cold, rain and mud for about 14 hours before being released.
“They did not tell me why they were there,” he said. “They did not tell me if I was wanted for any crime. No questions asked. They just took me.”
Tobasi had recently returned to the occupied West Bank from France, where he was on tour with a theatre company. His family sent him photos and videos of the continuous raids that began after the start of the war on Gaza on October 7 and, he said, he felt the urge to come back to his people and his theatre.
Since he was released, he had had no news about Sheta, 43, until he spoke to another friend from the theatre, Ismael Hussam Ibrahim, who was arrested on December 12 and released on December 13.
Ibrahim said Israeli soldiers forced their way into his home, handcuffed and blindfolded him, and seized his laptop. One of the soldiers asked him about the whereabouts of Tobasi, but he said nothing.
Ibrahim, 25, said he was taken to another location where he was able to raise his blindfold, and he saw Sheta, also blindfolded and handcuffed, sitting in the cold and mud close to him.
“They took pictures with me. I felt humiliated,” he told Al Jazeera.
No safe space
The raid and ransacking of the Jenin Theatre have come as a huge blow to the community and the people who work there who viewed it as a safe place. One of them is Ranin Odeh, 32, the child and youth programme coordinator, who leads activities for traumatised children at the theatre
“I’m not well,” she told Al Jazeera. “The occupying army stormed the theatre and destroyed the offices.”
Odeh was not inside the theatre when the raid took place, but for her, what happened to the theatre has underlined the very real danger Palestinians in the West Bank are living in and the fact that there is no escape.
“Perhaps words do not express my feelings and thoughts. We are in a very miserable and difficult situation,” she said. “Every place in the city of Jenin is a target. There is no safe place.”
Tobani is spending most of his time clearing up the mess at the theatre now. “For me, the way they arrest us and treat us is very humiliating. You hate yourself, you hate humanity, you hate the world.”
He said he hopes artists around the world will unite to support the theatre. For now, despite the risks and the mental exhaustion, Tobani, Odeh and many of the other staff have promised to continue the activities for children in any way they can.
Everyone should have a safe place to express themselves, Odeh said, “even though it seems in Jenin, there isn’t one.”