Freedom Theatre producer Mustafa Sheta outside the playhouse

Mustafa Sheta, producer at the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the Israeli-occupied West Bank of Palestine, gestures toward a mural of prominent Palestinian artists and activists, on December 12, 2022.

(Photo: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Forces Raid Freedom Theatre in West Bank and Arrest Artists

The attack on the internationally renowned cultural center came as Israeli occupation forces stepped up raids on the Jenin Refugee camp in recent days, killing a dozen Palestinians and abducting scores more.

In what critics are calling part of an effort to destroy Palestinian culture, Israeli forces on Wednesday raided the Freedom Theatre in the Jenin refugee camp in the illegally occupied West Bank and subsequently kidnapped three of the renowned playhouse's staff members.

Freedom Theatre associate director Zoey Lafferty wrote for The New Arab that Israeli occupation forces ransacked the internationally renowned cultural center shortly after 9:00 a.m. local time Wednesday. Lafferty said Israeli troops tore apart the theater's office and knocked down a wall, firing weapons from inside the building.

Israeli troops then went to the homes of artistic director Ahmed Tobasi and producer Mustafa Sheta and blindfolded, handcuffed, and abducted them. Hours later, they also kidnapped and "severely beat" Jamal Abu Joas, a recently graduated acting student.

"For decades, Palestinian artists have been arbitrarily detained by Israel, sometimes for years, who also target and destroy cultural buildings, a war crime under international law."

Tobasi, who says he was also beaten by his captors, was later released.

"They treated us like animals," he said in a statement following his release. "They are trying to hurt us in any way they can, but it's important we stay strong."

Rasha Seta, Mustafa's wife, said that her husband "was handcuffed and taken in front of our children with no mercy or any consideration to our feelings."

"My children spent their night crying," she added. "We felt so scared without him being around with us. We feel very sad for him being away, especially since we don't know why he was arrested. We call for everyone who can help us to stand with my husband and release him from this occupation."

The raid and arrests follow Israeli forces' killing of three members of Freedom Theatre in recent weeks: 17-year-old Yamen Jarrar, 26-year-old Jehad Naghniyeh, and 30-year-old Mohammed Matahen. In June, occupation forces killed youth theater participants Sadeel Naghnaghia, age 15, and Mahmoud Al-Sadi, who was 17 years old.

"For decades, Palestinian artists have been arbitrarily detained by Israel, sometimes for years, who also target and destroy cultural buildings, a war crime under international law," Freedom Theatre said on Thursday. "In the last few weeks in Gaza, an unprecedented number of writers, poets, theatermakers, and journalists have been killed, including Dr. Refaat Alareer, who was deliberately targeted and murdered."

According to Gaza officials, nearly 19,000 Palestinians—most of them women and children—have been killed by Israeli bombs and bullets since October 7, when Hamas-led militants attacked southern Israel and killed over 1,100 Israelis and others while taking around 240 people hostage. Upward of 1.9 million Gazans—or nearly 90% of the besieged strip's population—have been forcibly displaced. Many critics around the world have accused Israel of perpetrating genocide in Gaza.

The Freedom Theatre stages professional theatre productions; holds theater workshops in the refugee camp, Jenin town, and nearby villages; offers training in acting, pedagogy, and photography; and publishes books, exhibitions, and short films.

"Since we opened our doors in 2006, we have made theater and visual art available to every young person in Jenin refugee camp," the theater's website explains. "Our work has made Jenin refugee camp known in Palestine and internationally for innovative, thought-provoking theater and media productions. We have created a generation of artists and leaders, who one day will be at the forefront of the Palestinian liberation movement."

The Israeli raid and arrests came as occupation forces killed at least a dozen Palestinians in the West Bank during three days of raids on the Jenin refugee camp, which was built in 1953 to house some of the more than 750,000 Arabs ethnically cleansed from other parts of Palestine during the establishment of the modern state of Israel.

Today, around 15,000 Palestinians call the camp home. Jenin has been repeatedly invaded before and during Israel's current war on Gaza due to its residents' robust resistance to Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and settler colonization. Last month, an Israeli attack on the camp killed two children—one of them just 8 or 9 years old.

This was already the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the Second Intifada, or general uprising, a generation ago. Since October 7, Israeli soldiers and settlers have killed around 280 Palestinians in the territories, with thousands more wounded and close to 4,000 people kidnapped.

"As the genocide continues in Gaza and invasions in Jenin camp happen daily, it is hard to find the line between devastation and hope, loss and defiance, reality and optimism," Lafferty wrote. "What is clear is that Palestinians have managed to unite those around the world of different ages, backgrounds, cultures, and religions, to not only stand up for Palestinian rights and voices, but also our own."

"Through words and creativity, resilience and resistance, Palestinians have taught us how we can build a global Intifada," she added.

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