A peace initiative is the latest casualty of Israeli military raids in the West Bank
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
We're going to spend the next few minutes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank looking at one example of how life has changed there since October 7. There's been a surge of violence, and one of the Israeli military's recent targets might be surprising, a theater founded on hope for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from the Palestinian city of Jenin. And a warning - this story includes the brief sound of gunfire.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Actor Momen Sadi unlocks the door to the theater that's been a second home to him. It's where he starred in plays and led youth workshops. But the Freedom Theatre, as it's called in the Jenin refugee camp, is in shambles now.
MOMEN SADI: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: Trophies from drama festivals in Turkey and Japan are scattered amid shards of glass.
SADI: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: "This is painful," he says. He points to spray-painted red graffiti on the wall.
SADI: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: So there's a big Star of David on the - your theater.
FRAYER: He says it was done by Israeli soldiers when they broke in last month, confiscated computers and then detained staff at their homes, including another actor, Jamal Abu Joas.
JAMAL ABU JOAS: They entered my house. They started searching stuff. I try to defend. He take me with him.
FRAYER: Now, this theater is no stranger to conflict. Its founder was shot dead by masked gunmen in 2011. His murder remains unsolved. But his theater is famous. The recent arrests prompted a protest by Broadway actors, letters from playwrights around the world. When actor Abu Joas was hauled away, all he could think about, though, was a play that they had just done at the theater about Israeli prisons.
ABU JOAS: It's just, like, a comedian play.
FRAYER: A comedy.
ABU JOAS: A comedy, but speak about the reality. Yeah, there is some comedy stuff in the prison.
FRAYER: How was your experience in the Israeli jail?
ABU JOAS: There is no life in the prison. They just keep alive to another day.
FRAYER: About the graffiti, an Israeli military spokesperson wouldn't comment. The army prohibits such vandalism. About the arrests, a spokesperson says they were part of a military operation in the surrounding refugee camp.
So we're walking through sort of rubble in the street. It's muddy. There's water running through here. It smells like sewage. They're fixing the power lines because when Israelis rolled through here, they just tore everything out - the power, the roads, everything.
The Jenin refugee camp was built for Palestinians displaced in 1948 when Israel was created. And for decades it's been a hub for militants fighting occupation.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
FRAYER: Gunshots echoed through cinderblock lanes when we visited. Locals said it was practice, not Israeli soldiers. Since the Gaza war, this has been happening across the West Bank - more shootings of Jewish settlers and of Palestinians, more Israeli military incursions and even some airstrikes. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and thousands arrested. Israel says its raids are preemptive to thwart another attack like October 7, when Hamas militants crossed into Israel and killed some 1,200 people.
ASHRAF JARADAT: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: A block from the theater, a shoe salesman named Ashraf Jaradat describes the shame he felt when Israeli soldiers bulldozed his road, beat him in front of his children and detained him for three days. A military spokesperson would not comment on individual cases but said detainees deemed not to be involved in terrorism are freed within days.
NUHA MUSLEH, BYLINE: (Non-English language spoken). This is his house. Look at the destruction.
FRAYER: Wow. So the road is completely torn up here. It's full of puddles. The asphalt is gone.
As sewage from broken pipes pools in front of his house, Jaradat nevertheless invites us in.
So we're going into this man's house. We have to step over this rubble.
JARADAT: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: There are about 20 armed men in this refugee camp where we are, Jaradat says. How can you punish the other 20,000 of us for their actions? he asks. But then he admits that some of those armed men are members of his own family.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: His brother Mohammed shows us video on his phone of his two adult sons engaged in a gun battle with Israeli soldiers last year in the street just outside where we're sitting. Both are now in Israeli prison. Jaradat's own son, detained with him last month, also remains in Israeli custody. And so does the Freedom Theatre's general manager.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).
FRAYER: This winter, the theater is still holding acting workshops for children, but in a different location outside the refugee camp. They've canceled performances at the theater itself. It's too dangerous to ask audiences to come into the camp, especially at night. So when actor Abu Joas was freed from Israeli prison, he returned to an empty stage. And that's where I interviewed him.
ABU JOAS: The first time I was here, I was scared a little bit, and I forget the text. It was a mess.
FRAYER: You forgot your lines.
ABU JOAS: Yeah, I forgot my line.
FRAYER: It's sort of a happier...
ABU JOAS: Yeah.
FRAYER: ...Worry to have. Yeah.
ABU JOAS: Yeah, it's a happy memory.
FRAYER: And when you stand on this stage now?
ABU JOAS: Think about what's happening now, this situation. The whole life is changed.
FRAYER: He says he'd still like to make art from his experience somehow.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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