From Gaza to Jenin, we must resist Israel’s cultural genocide

As Israel manipulates the truth and silences Palestinian voices to justify its violence, art and culture are powerful tools of resistance, writes Zoe Lafferty.

The Israeli occupation forces (IOF) invasion in Jenin Refugee Camp had been ongoing for 30hrs when they entered The Freedom Theatre just past 9am. Ransacking the offices and knocking down a wall, they then shot from inside the building.

Next, the IOF went to the homes of artistic director Ahmed Tobasi and producer Mustafa Sheta, blindfolding, handcuffing and taking them away. Hours later they severely beat recently graduated acting student Jamal Abu Joas and kidnapped him as well.

Only a few days earlier, I was in France with Tobasi and The Freedom Theatre on a two month tour of “And Here I Am”. Written by Hassan Abdulrazzak and based on the life and performed by Tobasi, the play focuses on the Second Intifada, which is quickly becoming a mirror to the present.

7th of October was the day The Freedom Theatre was meant to travel to France to begin the tour. The already difficult journey turned into a four-day nightmare as Israel closed down the West Bank with military checkpoints, questioning, humiliating and detaining Tobasi and the technician Adnan Torokman at gunpoint.

"The censorship of Palestinian voices is intrinsically linked to the ease with which Israel continues to break international law and enact its 75-year military occupation, apartheid and current genocide" 

We arrived in Paris hours before the first performance, and it is no exaggeration to say they risked their lives for the show to go on. However, their bravery and determination was wasted on the Mayor of Choisy Le Roi, who took the cowardly decision to cancel that night’s performance.

Four days into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, as whole families were being massacred and entire neighbourhoods razed to the ground, we questioned whether it was right to focus on the cancellation of a play.

But the censorship of Palestinian voices is intrinsically linked to the ease with which Israel continues to break international law and enact its 75-year military occupation, apartheid and current genocide.

Erasure of Palestinian history and identity allows Israel to label with ease the people it occupies as “human animals” as global governments call for their murder as if it’s a sport.

The silencing of Palestinian perspectives leaves misinformation on front page headlines to go unchallenged, helping justify Israel’s attacks.

"Remaining silent regarding the war crimes committed by the Israeli army is a seal of approval justifying the colossal massacre"

A powerful statement from 350+ Arab signatories in cultural, artistic & academic fields expressing support for Palestinians👇 https://t.co/Zhj75UuYfC — The New Arab (@The_NewArab) November 7, 2023

A play is a small chance to tell the Palestinian perspective. Its cancellation by a politician out of “respect for all victims”, as the Eiffel Tower is lit up in white and blue, perfectly highlights Western hypocrisy.

For decades Palestinian artists have been arbitrarily detained by Israel without charge or trial. In the last few weeks the destruction of cultural heritage buildings in Gaza, a war crime under international law, has been unprecedented. As has the killing of an unimaginable number of writers, poets, theatre-makers and journalists.

In a powerful act of global mobilisation, artists around the world are sharing testimonies and poetry to amplify Palestinian voices.

Most recently when much-loved poet, writer and academic Dr Refaat Alareer was deliberately murdered in Gaza, people rose to the challenge he penned in his last poem: “If I die, you must live to tell my story”.

The poem has been translated into 160 languages, and performed at vigils and Palestine solidarity rallies around the world.

In an unmatched moment of collective storytelling, hundreds of performances in over 40 countries of “Gaza Monologues” created by Ashtar Theatre, took place on 29th November – the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Despite bombing and being displaced from north Gaza, with limited internet and electricity, writer and director Hossam Madhoun continues to send deeply personal accounts.

“What words can describe this? Damn it, where are the words?” Hossam writes, going on to vividly paint the picture of a mother hanging the washed clothes of her murdered 6-year-old son, “so when he came back he could put them on”.

Performed regularly by AZ Theatre in London, “Messages From Gaza Now”, has allowed audiences to become witness bearers.

Those who stand in solidarity with Palestine face continued backlash and bullying as pointed out in an open letter signed by over 1,300 artists, including Academy Award winner Olivia Colman and Olivier Award winners Harriet Walter and Juliet Stevenson.

"In the last few weeks the destruction of cultural heritage buildings in Gaza, a war crime under international law, has been unprecedented. As has the killing of an unimaginable number of writers, poets, theatre-makers and journalists" 

“The genocide in Gaza has been a wake-up call,” says actor Waleed Elgadi, who has repeatedly performed Hossam Madhoun’s “Messages From Gaza Now”.

Whilst filming recently, it was suggested he should avoid mentioning his views on Palestine so as not to upset a colleague. Cast to play “a two-dimensional grunt of a man”, this thuggish caricature was “at least not a terrorist” he tells me.

The incident on set not only made him question the consequences of staying silent but the role Western media plays in dehumanising and demonising Arabs. “I’ve started to question; am I complicit by doing these types of roles? Am I helping to form a narrative that allows governments to carpet bomb a whole group of people who look like me?”

In the face of arts organisations being silent, hundreds of cultural workers have gone on strike. Meanwhile, in France Sens Interdits Festival, and other allies worked tirelessly to ensure The Freedom Theatre’s voice was still heard.

In Bordeaux, our first show opened, with security hired and the police put on alert. Using tear-gas and water cannons on Pro-Palestinian protestors in Paris, and notorious for their racism, it seemed unlikely the French police might prioritise our protection.

As the genocide in Gaza and attacks across the West Bank, including in Jenin Refugee Camp, intensified, Tobasi’s personal story continues to become a present-day reality. At the same moment the show opened in Amiens the IOF began a prolonged attack on Jenin Camp.

Over twenty years on from the Second Intifada, it seems that very little has changed.

Tobasi’s experience of being stripped, blindfolded and held hostage in 2002 is mirrored in the current pictures of naked men rounded up in Beit Lahia, Gaza by the IOF.

As Tobasi details how his circle of childhood friends were all killed during the Second Intifada, we witness the erasure of a whole new generation of young men in Jenin Camp.

Halfway through the tour, we learn that 26-year-old Jehad Naghniyeh, who spent his childhood growing up in The Freedom Theatre, had been shot and murdered.

Jehad, who loved to be barefoot and climb trees. Who loved to cause mischief, hanging my phone from the top branch or hiding my theatre script, so I would spend hours looking for the different pages. Jehad, who drove everyone crazy with his games, was now a martyr, his face becoming another poster on the wall of the camp.

Hours later, news arrives that 17-year-old theatre participant Yamen Jarrar was also murdered that night. The theatre shares a cheeky smiling photo of Yamen in the swimming pool at the summer camp. How many of the over 10,000 kids killed in Gaza also loved to cause mischief? To act? To swim?

A week later, Mohammed Matahen, the theatre’s “bouncer” who managed overly excited kids during performances, was also killed. He is the fifth member of The Freedom Theatre murdered in less than a year – three of them child participants.

"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" 

Tobasi’s line from the play “The tragedy of Jenin can be read in these faces” describing the hundreds of posters of those killed plastered across the camp, suddenly hits harder.

In the UK, a new group Cultural Workers Against Genocide, are challenging the relationship that arts organisations have with companies that make money from the weapons Israel uses.

Outside Sadler Wells, they demanded the end of their unethical funding from Barclays, who hold £1.3 billion in shares of weapons manufacturers, including Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private arms company.

At the blockade of a BAE Systems weapons factory in Rochester, the words of a 14-year-old acting student from The Freedom Theatre are read out: “We don’t forget, and we don’t adapt. We just try to continue the journey of people who passed away. They passed away to liberate Palestine, so if we were to stop when someone is killed, then we would not reach their goal.”

24 hours after being taken, beaten and interrogated, Tobasi is released by the IOF. The first thing he asks me is about the rest of the team at The Freedom Theatre.

“We need to demand their release,” he says of Mustafa and Jamal. I reassure him that there is a whole team of people coming together around the world to make this happen.

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.

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. As Tobasi urges his audience in the final line of the play, “It is time to begin”.

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