Jenin Jenin

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Jenin Jenin             by Sally Campbell

I remember our hosts making and bringing us lunch on the rooftop garden of The Freedom Theatre (TFT) in Jenin Refugee Camp after they gave us a tour of their black box type theatre. We were there with Eyewitness Palestine. (It was 2014, just when Hamas & Fatah reached a Unity Agreement, just before that summer’s brutal siege of Gaza, killing the fragile unity in its wake.) There were several Europeans in temporary residency at TFT, teaching lighting, sound, film.  Plays of TFT are original writing, based on stories told by Palestinians, or adaptations of established plays. Friends of TFT, based in New York & London, also mentor and support financially. Our Palestinian hosts, who run the Theatre, were born and raised in the Camp or elsewhere in the occupied Palestinian territories. They proudly recounted the history of TFT, inspired by the work in Jenin Refugee Camp of a Jewish-Israeli woman named Arna. As a young woman, she was part of an Israeli militia, the Palmach, participating in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Bedouin from the Negev. She later married a Palestinian from Nazareth and they had 3 children. She wanted to create a space for children to heal from the violence and to learn their own history, not a history written by the new State of Israel. Arna won the Alternate Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and her son Juliano Mer Khanis, then the most famous and most controversial actor in Israel, encouraged her to use her prize money to build a small theatre. She did that, then died in 1995; Juliano re-established it as TFT in 2006. By this time, Jenin Refugee Camp had been devastated by the Israeli military during the 2nd Intifada. 

Jenin has long been a place of resistance to Israeli control over Palestinian lives and dispossession of their land. Jenin Refugee Camp is about 1 square km., housing 15,000, mostly people (& their descendants) driven out of Haifa by Zionist militias in 1948. Haifa at that time had a Palestinian population of about 70,000. Only 4,000 remained after the Nakba. Their homes, businesses and lands were taken over by Jewish immigrants to the new State of Israel, and the Palestinians –  neither consulted nor compensated –  have never been allowed to return, even to visit.  

The utter failure of the Oslo Accords in the 90’s, with loss of even more land to Israelis, plus the non-realization of the promised Palestinian State, created pre-conditions for the 2nd Intifada (“shaking off”). With no military, and ownership of weapons by Palestinians illegal under Israeli law, some of the most desperate Palestinians resisted with their lives, as suicide bombers. Many of these came from Jenin, and consequently Jenin Refugee Camp became a prime target of the Israeli military. The Camp’s virtual destruction in 2002 was seen as collective punishment by many.  The 2nd Intifada was harsh and ineffective, with 5,000 Palestinians killed and 1,400 Israelis.

More resistance was created by the violence and destruction, and so the cycle goes. Out of the ashes rose once again The Freedom Theatre. It has served as a place for numerous youth and young adults of Jenin, living unfree in the cramped squalor of the Camp, to work through their trauma, to find purpose, to learn skills and be mentored. It is like a beacon of hope in a pretty bleak environment. When parts of the Camp were rebuilt after 2002, our hosts from TFT told us that Israelis made sure the roads were wide enough for Israeli bulldozers and tanks.

And now in June & July, 2023, Jenin has been not only invaded again by land, but bombed by Israeli drones & Apache helicopters, causing a level of destruction not seen since 2002, which locals remember as the “Battle of Jenin”. The latest incursion began in the middle of the night with over 1,000 Israeli military entering the Camp in tanks, holding people at gunpoint while forcing 3,000 people to leave their homes, moving on the rampage from one occupied house to the next. 12 were killed, over 100 injured. Power, water and sewage networks were damaged; roads were completely destroyed, perhaps to prevent ambulances from getting through*. Bombs were dropped indiscriminately from the air, damaging or destroying almost 80% of the buildings. (Jewish Currents, Unpacking Israel’s Legal Fictions, 14 July, 2023.)  Every boy the Israeli military found over 15 years of age was arrested. (Mondoweiss Podcast “Unpacking Jenin”, 11 July, 2023.)  Journalists were once again targeted by snipers, ostensibly to prevent their reporting.** Then after 2 days of mayhem, the military upped and left the Camp. Go figure.

*The Israeli military has a long history of preventing help for the injured enemy, in contravention of the Geneva Conventions. See Thomas Suarez’ Palestine Hijacked: How Zionism forged an Apartheid State from the River to the Sea (2023), describing Jewish militias’ guerilla attacks against the British in the lead-up to 1948: “As was their habit, the militants mined the approach road to blow up anyone coming to the victims’ aid”. (p.139) 

** This practice has been documented & condemned by the International Federation of Journalists. 

(Next week: Part 2)