By Richard Lightbown
‘The location of the Freedom Theatre […is] in the middle of the most attacked and poorest refugee camp in Palestine, the refugee camp of Jenin. We are talking about almost three thousand children under the age of 15 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It means they pee in their pants when they are eleven. It means they cannot concentrate; they cannot deal with each other without violence.
“This camp […] is [be]sieged by electric fence, all around it. People cannot go out or in unless they have a permit. We have two gates like a big prison, and we are just in the middle, trying to serve this population, trying to bring some normality, some sanity to some people here.
“I would say that the Freedom Theatre offers the very basic elements of life to children, to people, to grown-ups, to women, to men: freedom.
“And then of course we help with all the tools possible around the arts: cameras, drama therapy, computers, video cameras, lighting, stage, microphones, music … whatever [it] needs just to flip away from 60 years of occupation.
“We hope this theatre will generate a political, artistic movement of artists who are going to raise their voices against female discrimination, against child discrimination, against violence – unnecessary violence against civilians, to generate a new…to bring back the just cause. We are not terrorists.
“To me freedom is, ah… is the Freedom Theatre.” 
The words of course came from Juliano Mer Khamis who was gunned down by an unknown assassin on 4 April this year outside the theatre of his creation. Such a visionary graces humanity so rarely that the loss is incalculable. But the work of the theatre has continued after this devastating blow because as its members have said, if we give up Juliano will die.
The importance of this continuing act of resistance can be measured by the response of the occupying power. On 27 July 2011 Israeli army special forces attacked the theatre with stones at approximately 3.30 in the morning and abducted the chief technician Adnan Nagnaghiya and board member Bilal Saadi on the grounds that they had been agitating against the security of the region. They were taken to separate high security prisons in Israel where lawyers were refused access to them. When Acting General Manager Jacob Gough and a co-founder arrived later at the theatre they were forced at gunpoint to squat next to a family with four small children. An Israeli army spokesman later denied that the army had forced an entry into the theatre but photo and video evidence shows that during the raid most of the windows had been broken in the office and the multi-media centre.
It was later announced that the two detainees were being held under suspicion of involvement in Juliano’s murder, which both denied. Because Juliano was an Israeli citizen and because it has been alleged that his murder was carried out for nationalist reasons, the Shin Bet has been involved in the investigation along with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and the Israel Police. In keeping with the Shin Bet’s notorious record of human rights abuse Mr Saadi is alleged to have been subjected to sleep deprivation, to have required the services of a doctor four times because of treatment suffered under interrogation, and to have been unable to eat food provided because his hands were cuffed.
On 6 August 2011 the lead actor in the theatre’s production of Waiting for Godot was on his way to rehearsals when he too was detained, handcuffed and blindfolded at an Israeli checkpoint near Jenin. He too was held on suspicion of involvement in murder. As Amira Hass put it”
“The production of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ by the Freedom Theatre in Jenin has new casting directors: the Shin Bet security service and the Israeli army. They are currently deciding whether Pozzo, master of the slave Lucky, will be played by 20-year-old Rami Hwayel of the Jenin refugee camp.”
While the investigation was being held Mr Hwayel was banned from meeting with a lawyer for five days and a gag order was put in place. Four days later the military court admitted that there was no basis for the investigation. However during custody it had been discovered that he had twice spent time in Israel without permission during the previous two years. After three arrest extensions, the military court on 21 August finally handed down a sentence of one month and a day (giving credit for the two-week period already served in detention). The court also established that the other two detainees had no connection to the murder and must be released within the week.
The production of Beckett’s play has been put on by Israeli-American Udi Aloni “as a message that murder will not destroy the theatre and [the students’] careers in acting.” It had been intended to take the cast to an acting workshop at the Public Theater in New York, followed by a performance at Columbia University. These arrangements are currently at risk because of Rami’s arrest. In response to this ever-present threat the Freedom Theatre will in future cast each actor in two parts.
On 22 August at approximately 2:00 in the morning the IDF again raided the Freedom Theatre and the home of the Nagnaghiya family. Summoned by neighbours, Jacob Gough returned to the theatre where he was threatened with violence if he did not withdraw. After a second attempt he was forced to strip at gunpoint, detained and threatened with beating if he spoke. Meanwhile the theatre’s security guard (Mohammed, brother of Adnan Nagnaghiya) was beaten in his home, all three floors of which were ransacked before he was taken away in handcuffs. By this time youths had gathered and begun to throw stones. As they left the army attempted to disperse the crowd by firing live ammunition.
Theatre co-founder Jonatan Stanczak commented:
“This behaviour is mounting to systematic harassment of The Freedom Theatre by The Israeli army, it is scandalous. This proves that the Israeli army and security apparatus is either lost in their investigation or that they have the actual intention of damaging the theatre. It also seems that after the murder of Juliano Mer Khamis the Freedom Theatre is no longer exempted from the kind of oppression the Palestinian society is subjected to in general.”
– Richard Lightbown is a researcher and writer. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.