‘Children in Jenin Refugee Camp end up as prisoners, martyrs, or with a disability’

Palestinian children play on an empty street during a strike in Jenin, West Bank, in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons (Nasser Ishtayeh - Flash90)

Yuval Abraham

+972 Magazine  /  September 13, 2021

After years of resisting the ‘bitter reality’ of Israel’s occupation, last week’s prison break offered some hope to Palestinians in Jenin, says Freedom Theater’s artistic director.

I’m standing on a hill, looking at Jenin Refugee Camp from up above when I see gray. There is not a single bit of green from trees or brown earth. Only a dense, growing block of cement that bleeds into the city of Jenin, adjacent to the camp.

Zakaria Zubeidi, the most famous of the six Palestinian political prisoners who escaped from Israel’s Gilboa Prison last week, was born here, as were a few of the others. He was captured by Israeli authorities on Saturday after nearly a week of searches by the police and army. Meanwhile, hardly anyone in Jewish Israeli society dared to ask bigger questions, such as: why has Jenin become a center for Palestinian resistance? What kind of reality do the residents of Jenin Refugee Camp live in? And why are so many of them in Israeli prisons? 

Only 11 kilometers separate Jenin Refugee Camp and Kibbutz Yizre’el in northern Israel. From this hill, one sees the kibbutz shining in the middle of the lush Jezreel Valley, beyond the checkpoint. The kibbutz was established on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Zir’in, whose inhabitants were expelled during the Nakba [1948]. One of those residents was the grandmother of Ahmad al-Tubasi, a smiling and energetic theater actor in his 30s who brought me to this hill, which overlooks the camp he was born in.    

“Were I born on the other side of the valley,” he says, pointing at Jezreel Valley, known as Marj Ibn Amer in Arabic, “everything would have been different. The same valley, but different rights, depending on what side of the line you were born.”

Al-Tubasi’s life story was recently turned into a play, in which he plays himself: a refugee born in a camp under military occupation growing up in the shadow of the Second Intifada, who sat in Israeli prison, and ended up becoming a theater actor, educator, and activist.

Al-Tubasi knew Zubeidi well. “The escape gave a bit of hope to the residents, a small victory to cling to,” he says, “and now we’ve gone back to the bitter reality. Like a punch to the gut. You’re occupied, and the occupation is stronger than you.”

From the hill, one can also see the cities of Afula, Haifa, and Nazareth on the Israeli side of the Green Line. Everything is so close yet seems so far. Most of the residents live merely kilometers from the areas their relatives were expelled from or fled in 1948. Traveling from the occupied territories to Jerusalem or Israel requires an entry permit from the Israeli army. Every single young person I met in Jenin has been refused a permit. The vast majority have never seen the sea.

“There is not a single family in the refugee camp without a prisoner or someone who was killed [by the army], and the Shin Bet refuses entry permits to members of those families as collective punishment,” Al-Tubasi explains. “Some of the young people enter Israel illegally simply to work, since there is no work in the camp.”

We walk over to the Freedom Theater, ​​a Palestinian community-based theater and cultural center in Jenin Refugee Camp where Ahmad works as an artistic director. The walls outside are colorful, and on one of them is written: “The past will be present in the future.” Children from the camp come to the theater for workshops and to watch plays. The kids, Al-Tubasi says, come to the Freedom Theater for “drama-based therapy. We’re all traumatized here, we need it.”

When you grow up here, in this bubble called the Jenin Refugee Camp, your path is set: you either become a prisoner, a shahid [martyr], or a person with a disability,” he remarks. “We work with the children to change that course. We tell them that they have a chance to defy it, that they can be something else.”

After some hesitation, he continues: “It irks me, this constant demand from the residents of the camp to ‘want peace.’ What peace? What are you talking about? We live in hell.”

Does a child who choses armed resistance do so because they don’t see any other options around them? I ask. Al-Tubasi laughs: “The child does not choose! That’s the thing: he has no choice.”

“Ever since I was born, I have seen the army coming into the camp every night. Arresting people, opening fire. Imagine your father in prison, your brother a martyr, your neighbor’s home being demolished. A foreign army controls you. There is not even an airport in the West Bank! The borders are closed. So how can you be expected to do something else? I wish Israelis could spend two nights in the camp, and see how it feels.” 

Old black and white photos from the days of the First Intifada hang on the walls of the theater. In one of them, a group of children can be seen jumping on a stage. One is disguised as a tiger, another as a rooster. Zakaria Zubeidi, who was 12 at the time the photo was taken, is there as well.

“Seven of the eight children in his [theater] group have died,” Al-Tubasi says of the photo. “Everyone except Zakaria was killed in the Second Intifada.”

Then he starts counting them, one after the other. “Yousef,” Ahmad points to one of the children, “carried out an attack in Hadera and was shot. He suffered an emotional breakdown after a young girl who was shot by a soldier died in his arms. Ashraf fought in the Battle of Jenin in 2002, and was shot when soldiers re-occupied the camp.” 

All seven of them were killed, he reiterates. All of Al-Tubasi’s friends were also killed. Another resident of the camp overhears us talking, and mumbles: “They erased an entire generation.”

The story of the group of children who became fighters and were killed during the Second Intifada is well documented in “Arna’s Children,” directed by Juliano Mer-Khamis. Mer-Khamis’s mother, Arna, a Jewish-Israeli woman, founded the Freedom Theater during the First Intifada. The theater was shut down for years, only to be re-established in 2006 by a group of Palestinians, including Zubeidi. “He is our founder,” Al-Tubasi says.

After the Second Intifada came to an end around 2005, the refugee camp bled silently, without much coverage in international media. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, also began detaining residents of the camp. All the while, Israel’s policies of military occupation and dispossession only intensified.

Since violence engulfed Israel-Palestine in May, armed youth have begun confronting Israeli soldiers who enter the camp to make arrests on a near-nightly basis. In August, five residents of the camp were killed during armed confrontations with the military. A total of 12 residents have been killed since the beginning of the year.

“It’s the same story,” Al-Tubasi says, making a circular motion with his hand, “oppression leads to silence only for a short period of time.” 

‘I wanted to resist, but in a different way’

The walls of the camp are full of posters of Palestinians who have either been killed or imprisoned by Israeli forces. Rectangular, ornate pages with photos of boys or young men, often holding a weapon. Al-Tubasi says that even if someone dies under other circumstances, his head is photoshopped to the body of an armed person. On some of the walls, the pages have been torn down to make room for newer posters of the recently killed, leaving only adhesive marks. 

“You see it wherever you go,” Al-Tubasi says, “prison and death.” Some of the houses in the camp are newer than others. Entire areas here were demolished and rebuilt in 2002, after the 10-day Battle of Jenin, in which Israeli soldiers occupied the camp. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and more than 1,400 people were left without shelter. Al-Tubasi was only a boy; his house was demolished as well.

“A bulldozer smashed into our kitchen while my aunt was inside. We couldn’t sleep due to gunfire and shelling. In the end, we wanted to surrender. There was no food or water. We went out with white flags. The soldiers divided the women, children, and men into groups.”

When he was 17, Al-Tubasi was tried in military court and sentenced to four years in Israeli prison. The charges against him were confidential, and to this day he has never seen them, he says. He was only told that he posed a danger to Israel’s security. “I did not have an organizational affiliation,” he says, “and in prison you must choose an organization. The prisoners are divided according to that. I told them [Islamic] Jihad, even though I have no connection [to the group].”

When he was released, he did not know what to do. “I was 21, without a shekel. All my friends were killed. Life was hell. As a released prisoner, people did not want to employ me. Then, I heard that Zakaria [Zubeidi] had reopened the theater. I did not want to die after I was released. I wanted to resist, but in a different way.”

We keep walking. We come across a group of boys, and one of them shakes Al-Tubasi’s hand while telling his friends about the magician he saw in the theater. “He took papers out of his mouth! When will he come again?” Al-Tubasi answers and strokes the boy’s head. As he walks away, Al-Tubasi tells me, “See him? His father is in jail.”

Adjacent to the local bakery, next to an old British train station, stand several young people. Some have been going out at night in recent months, in order to try and block the army from entering the camp. “The occupation speaks and understands only the language of power,” says one of them, and his friends nod. “Why is the army allowed to enter cities and camps in the West Bank whenever it wants? To kill? To arrest?” People will not sit on their hands without doing anything,” says another.

Jenin Refugee Camp is one of the northernmost points in the West Bank. I drove here in the morning from the southern part of the West Bank with a Palestinian friend. On the way, I counted 14 army checkpoints at the entrance to various villages. Each had two or three soldiers standing and checking IDs at random. There is one large, permanent border checkpoint near Jerusalem that monitors Palestinian movement from the north to the south of the West Bank. Israel prohibits Palestinians from traveling through Jerusalem or paving new inter-city roads in the West Bank, turning every south-to-north journey a four-hour nightmare.

“Believe me, the Palestinians are tired,” Al-Tubasi tells me as the day winds down. “They want change. They want to be able to move. To go to the sea. To find work and make a living. I want to reach a situation in which everyone has the same rights, without violence.

“For the past 15 years I have been working with children in the camp on nonviolence, political awareness, how to build a future, and one raid by the Israeli army on the camp destroys everything. It makes them understand in an instant that no matter what you do, you are under occupation. And that’s not going to change — the leaders in Israel say it openly. Sometimes I even get depressed by it. I ask myself: maybe my way is a mistake?”

Yuval Abraham is a photography and linguistics student