Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

After the Murder, a New Act at Freedom Theatre

JERUSALEM, Apr 6 2012 (IPS) - Actors, musicians, activists and friends gathered in various locations throughout Israel and the West Bank this week to commemorate the life of actor and theatre director Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Mer-Khamis was shot and killed on Apr. 4, 2011, while he sat in his car in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank.

“It is a sad reminder of the reality of the present situation here, of the fear in our part of society here. It is a reminder of how thin the border is between life and death here, and how little is in our control,” managing director Jonatan Stanczak told IPS. He co-founded the Freedom Theatre along with Mer-Khamis and Palestinian Zakaria Zubeidi.

An Israeli citizen born to a Palestinian-Israeli father and Jewish-Israeli mother, Mer-Khamis opened the Freedom Theatre in Jenin in 2006 as a way to empower Palestinian youth in the refugee camp to express themselves, and to use creative expression as a method of resistance.

“I think that when artists are attacked, then it is a symbol that free cultural expression is under grave threat and every artist is then also a potential target. It also recognises the important role, I think, of artists in this struggle for freedom and equal rights,” said Stanczak.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has jurisdiction over the Jenin refugee camp, a 0.42 square-kilometre area in the north of the occupied West Bank that is home to more than 16,000 registered Palestinian refugees, almost half of them under the age of 18. The PA began a criminal investigation immediately after Juliano Mer-Khamis was killed.

A separate Israeli investigation is also ongoing and is being conducted jointly by the Israeli army, police and the Shabak (Shin Bet) security agency.

Israeli authorities have arrested various members of the theatre – including a 20-year-old lead actor – broken theatre windows and equipment, conducted night raids involving the shooting of live ammunition, and intimidated and ransacked the homes of individuals affiliated with the theatre.

According to the Freedom Theatre, over 30 arrests were made in the Jenin refugee camp in December 2011 alone, all supposedly related to the investigation into Juliano’s killing.

Despite the case remaining unsolved, Stanczak said that the theatre has continued to follow Juliano’s vision of using cultural expression to promote change and fight injustice.

“We are here to join a movement struggling against oppression and inequality, struggling for a society built on democratic values. We believe that culture is a key component in that struggle because culture has the built-in capacity of questioning the present systems, of questioning authority, of questioning and challenging the present reality and also, showing the possible alternative reality,” Stanczak said.

Today, Freedom Theatre continues to organise various cultural activities in Jenin and throughout the West Bank, including running Palestine’s first professional acting school, and hosting filmmaking workshops and playback theatre events, where members of a community share personal experiences, which actors and musicians then act out in an improvised theatre piece.

In September-October this year, the theatre is also organising a ‘Freedom Bus’ tour through the West Bank, where Palestinians’ personal stories and experiences under occupation will again be acted out in street theatre events.

“We are continuing to educate professional actors, future leaders, in a cultural revolution. The Freedom Theatre is continuing the work of Juliano in the spirit of Juliano,” Stanczak said.

“We are inviting people all around the world to join this struggle. The reality (in Palestine) is only getting worse by the day. We see ourselves as part of a rising popular struggle and we will only succeed if the international community will join this popular, non-violent struggle asking for democracy and justice.”

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