Connect to share and comment

West Bank: same goal, different weapon

Putting down their guns, some residents of Jenin turn to art in their fight against Israel.

JENIN, West Bank — When Cinema Jenin reopened last week after being shuttered for 23 years, one of the first people to walk its red carpet was Zakaria Zubeidi. He wore a blue polo shirt, jeans, black boots and the scars of a botched effort to build a bomb on his pockmarked face.

But like his city, which was once a notorious militant center in the West Bank, the former chief of the Jenin Al-Aqsa Martryrs Brigade laid down his arms in 2007 and has since poured his energy into overthrowing Israeli rule through an explosion in the arts.

“We will create new politicians through culture,” Zubeidi, 33, told GlobalPost.

The picture house was born in film. In 2005 Israeli soldiers shot Ahmed Khatib, 12, when they mistook his toy gun for a real one. His father Ismael donated the boy's organs to six Jewish and Arab Israelis. German filmmaker Marcus Vetter and Qalqilya native Fakhri Hamad, who met while documenting Khatib’s decision in "Heart of Jenin" (2008), looked for a local venue to screen it. Built in 1957, the two-story Cinema Jenin had once shown Egyptian movies, Bruce Lee flicks and even porn before closing in the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 1987.

The Palestinian Authority and the German Foreign Ministry bankrolled most of the $1.4-million renovation. Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters donated a sound system. For two years, 500 German and a few dozen local Palestinian volunteers designed the cinema’s public relations material, reupholstered its chairs and laid floor tiles.

Ten days before the cinema opening, Hamad shouted to two men high on a scaffold in the dusty cinema: “Mike, Alyosha, come for eissen!” The German volunteers clambered down and headed to a table loaded with salad and rice.

“We want to make Jenin more open-minded to other cultures,” Hamad said.

Unlike the Palestinian uprisings, Jenin’s cultural movement can involve Israelis. Hamad said the cinema hosted a teacher and student from Jerusalem's Sam Speigel school of film and Tel Aviv Cinematheque Director Alon Garbuz was scheduled to speak at the festival but backed out at the last minute.

“If they believe the Palestinians have the right to have their own country and live in freedom, [Israelis] are welcome,” Hamad said. “Settlers are not welcome. Soldiers are not welcome.”

The arts resistance is not confined to film. A short taxi ride away, in the darkened Freedom Theater in July, seven young actors shouted “Tiyara!” (Arabic for plane) and hit the ground in a reconstructed 1948 Palestinian refugee camp. They were rehearsing "Men in the Sun" (1962) penned by Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani 10 years before his assassination by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

The Freedom Theater began with the late Arna Mer, a Jewish Israeli woman who moved to Jenin to teach acting to Palestinian children, including Zubeidi, before she died in 1995. But the theater she built them did not survive the second intifada.

In the first two years of the uprising, which began in 2000, Jenin sent 28 suicide bombers into Israel. In response, Israeli soldiers bulldozed football field-sized holes into the densely packed refugee camp. The battle left 54 Palestinians and 23 Israelis dead. The theater was razed after two of Mer’s young actors used it as a base for attacking Israeli soldiers. Another two young actors died after gunning down four Israelis at a bus stop north of Tel Aviv. A fifth died from an Israeli missile attack.