x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

West Bank theatre group caught in the middle

Last week, Israeli soldiers arrested Nabil Al Raee, the art director of Jenin's Freedom Theatre, in a night-time raid.

JERUSALEM //Members of a West Bank theatre, whose founder was assassinated a year ago, say they are increasingly caught between the Israeli military and Palestinian security forces.

Last week, Israeli soldiers arrested Nabil Al Raee, the art director of Jenin's Freedom Theatre, in a night-time raid.

It came just weeks after Zakaria Zubeidi, a Palestinian fighter who helped found the theatre, was seized by Palestinian Authority (PA) forces.

The arrests follow similar Israeli arrests and interrogations after the unresolved murder of the theatre's founder Juliano Mer-Khamis last April. Gunmen shot Mer-Khamis, born to a Jewish mother and Palestinian father, in front of the theatre.

Although a dozen of the theatre's members have been either interrogated or arrested - or both - by Israel since the killing, not one has been charged.

Micaela Miranda, a Portuguese national who works at the theatre, said members felt both besieged by Israel and threatened by the PA.

To the dismay of many Palestinians, Israeli and PA forces coordinate security operations that have led to the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank.

"When Nabil was arrested, it was clear the PA was not there to protect the Palestinians," Ms Miranda said. "Even afterwards, the PA made no mention of the incident, and they didn't visit the theatre. Nothing."

Denied access to a lawyer, Mr Al Raee, 35, and a father of one, is believed to have been taken to a detentioncentre near the Israeli city of Haifa. Israeli soldiers entered his home in Jenin during the middle of the night, the theatre's managing director, Jonatan Stanczak, said in a statement issued after the incident.

"The house was surrounded by masked Israeli soldiers and three of them immediately pointed their weapons at me and pushed me back into the house," said Mr Stanczak who lives in the same building as Mr Al Raee.

In May, Palestinian security forces arrested Mr Zubeidi and took him to a PA-run prison in the West Bank city of Jericho. His arrest came amid a PA dragnet following the death in early May of the PA district governor of Jenin, Qadoura Moussa. Mr Moussa was reported to have died of a heart attack after firing a pistol at militants who had attacked his home.

Since then, PA forces have arrested dozens of people in the area.

Farid Hawash, Mr Zubeidi's lawyer, has been denied permission to visit his client, the unofficial Palestinian Maan news agency reported on Friday.

Mr Hawash called on the PA to "apply the correct procedure of Palestinian law" and allow him to meet his client. It is unclear whether Mr Zubeidi has been formally charged of a crime or why the PA arrested him.

Mr Zubeidi, a 36-year-old father of three, was a well-known leader of the Jenin branch of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades during the second intifada.

He took part in an agreement in 2007 to end fighting with Israel and avoid arrest. A year later, he was working exclusively at the Freedom Theatre at Mer-Khamis request, abandoning fighting for what he called "cultural resistance" against Israel.

The pair became close friends. Mr Zubeidi was considered a supporter of the unorthodox political message imparted by Mer-Khamis to the theatre's young Palestinian participants, who largely come from Jenin's rough refugee camp.

That message earned Mer-Khamis critics. They opposed the theatre's liberal male-female environment and provocative productions. Few camp residents attended his funeral last year.

Three staff members and actors in the theatre were arrested by Israel's military last summer and held for a month. None, however, was charged.

But while the theatre's lawyer said its members did not oppose investigations into Mer-Khamis' murder, she criticised the violent nature of Israeli arrests of its members.

"Unless there is something dramatic to justify this, there is no reason why these people should be treated so harshly by being arrested in middle of night by brigades of soldiers," said Smadar Ben-Natan, an Israeli, adding that she should be granted access to her clients.