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Director of Freedom Theatre in Jenin Speaks Out After Arrest by Israel

Ahmed Tobasi was arrested amid a wave of violence Israel has unleashed across the occupied West Bank since October 7.

The Israeli military this week raided the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a renowned cultural institution whose mission is to fight for Palestinian justice, equality and self-determination. It’s part of a wave of violence Israel has unleashed across the occupied West Bank since October 7, killing 58 people in Jenin alone even as the country intensifies its assault on Gaza. We speak with Freedom Theater artistic director Ahmed Tobasi, who was just released after being held for 24 hours. Two of his colleagues remain in Israeli detention. “The Israeli soldiers believe we are not human beings,” says Tobasi. “You are under occupation, and that’s your destiny as a Palestinian.” He decries the decades of international impunity under which the oppression of Palestinians operates, and calls on Americans to resist the use of their tax dollars to fund Israel’s violence. “They believe no one in this world can ask them to stop,” he says. We also get a reaction from Peter Schumann, the founder and director of the Bread and Puppet Theater, the legendary political and social justice-oriented theater company, marking its 60th year with a puppet show in New York City that is an ode to Gaza.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to the occupied West Bank, where Israel has killed at least 12 Palestinians during a three-day raid on the Jenin refugee camp, the largest raid there in 20 years. On Wednesday, Israeli soldiers raided the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, a renowned cultural institution whose mission is to fight for Palestinian justice, equality and self-determination. The theater has been repeatedly targeted by Israeli forces since its founding in 2006. In 2011, one of the theater’s founders, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was assassinated. In July, the theater was struck in an Israeli drone strike.

We’re joined now by Ahmed Tobasi, the theater’s artistic director, who was detained and beaten this week. Two of his colleagues remain detained, including the theater’s general manager Mustafa Sheta.

Ahmed, thank you so much for being with us. Describe where you are sitting right now, and then what happened to you this week. We’re seeing a raid that is one of the largest that Israel — I mean, frequently raids Jenin. One of the times it raided Jenin, it killed the Al Jazeera reporter. But, Ahmed, if you can talk about what’s happened now?

AHMED TOBASI: Just there is no words, actually. I could not find words to describe the pain, the sore that we have as the Palestinian and especially the people in Jenin and Jenin camp. I’m sitting in the middle of my office and Mustafa’s office. And for me, just like everything is destroyed. And you see all this mess. And I don’t know why. It’s because — this is theater. It’s not a military base. It’s not an artillery house. It’s not an armed place, or there is no guns. There is books, pictures, cameras, music and instruments. All of it been destroyed. The whole theater been — like, all computers, all offices been destroyed. And they’ve been writing and writing and drawing Hebrew things all around.

And, you know, just yesterday — before yesterday, I was actually in my house, which is in front of the Freedom Theatre, and I know — I was waiting — they’re going to come to check us in the house, because they’re going house to house. They’re arresting everyone, from like 13 to 60, 50 years old. And I was hearing them. They’re coming to my house, because they’re going house by house. And then they just broke the door of my house. I just went out to them and told them, “Please, there is children here. We are a whole family here, and we can do whatever you want. There is no need for violence. There is no need to do anything.” But quickly, they put the guns on me. They took me, put me down, and they started to beat me. And I don’t know why. I was telling them, like, “I have a Norwegian passport. I have Norwegian citizenship.” But they didn’t care.

They stormed in. They broke all the house. They broke everything, any electronic stuff, any glass. And they took my brother, too. The children were screaming, crying. And even they were screaming on them. And because I understand a little Hebrew, they were swearing at the children. They were screaming at my mom and dad, which is old people. And then they started to beat me, and then they handcuffed me. And they took me, and they put some even like army clothes on me, and they started to take pictures of me, taking poses, soldier by soldier, to show their girlfriends they are heroes. But while I was under arrest, under the guns, and they were taking these pictures from me.

And then they put me in a truck. They took me to al-Jalama checkpoint, and they threw me in the mud. It was raining. They threw me beside the street, where all the Jeeps, the vehicles, army go around me. And I don’t understand what is going on. Are they going to drive on me? Are they going to kill me? I don’t know what is going on, because I was blindfolded. And then they put me in another truck, and they took me to another place, where they throw us again outside, start to do like an immediate interrogation about my identity and, like, you know, intelligence. But it’s outside intelligence, in the rain. They didn’t let me even take my shoes or clothes to cover myself. It’s December. It’s very cold with the rain. And it was a torture in somehow, a psychological torture, mentally torture, that all the time the soldiers go around you with the guns, their guns touching you, and you’re just waiting the moment when they’re going to shoot you. Are they going to drive on you? Are they going to smash you? And, you know, they take you from place to place, place to place, makes you walk, that you don’t know, without shoes, with the mud.

So it was a whole crazy — I cannot — I cannot describe. This is happening. For me, it takes me directly to 2002, when I was 17 years old. It’s exactly the same thing happening. The Israelis have the machine time to bring you back 20 years just with one button, with one invasion. And for me, I am wondering how long this is going to happen again and again in the same way, and still the whole world looking, and they cannot do anything for us. We, as the Palestinians, we are too bored of this life. We are too bored of this legacy of the world, that they’re promising humanity, promising democracy. This is — this is — I cannot go on again. I mean, we, as the Palestinians, now we are at the point that we cannot wait for another promise. We have to do something even as the Palestinians.

But even though we still, in the Freedom Theatre, is a cultural, artistic place, where we have children, young people, girls, boys, women to come here to practice, to find a place where they can express themselves, where they can imagine there is a better life, a better place in this world, where they can decide their future in different ways, to choose to be different from the reality that we’re living. And still the Israelis come, and they’re telling us, “No, you cannot dream. You cannot think that you can be something different from the reality around you. You are under occupation, and that’s your destiny as a Palestinian, to grow up, to be born, to grow up and die under brutal, crazy, violent occupation,” that they don’t believe in anything, not in art. They arrest us as artists, as the people who do theater. They arrest — they destroy everything that shows there is culture, there is art, that we Palestinians, we are a normal people. The Israeli soldiers believe we are not a human being. That’s why they’re killing us in very easy way. That’s why they destroy theaters and cultural places, because also they believe no one in this world can ask them to stop. No one can tell them, “You can’t do this.” They believe, as Israelis, they can do whatever they want, and no one in this world can tell them what you are doing.

So, I am asking all the artists in this world — and, you know, as Juliano Mer-Khamis and Zakaria Zubeidi, the main founders of the Freedom Theatre, was believing the Third Intifada, which we’re doing now, is going to be a cultural, artistic intifada. We’re asking also all the friends all around the world, you have to unite, and we have to fight not just for Palestinians. We have to fight this planet, for the humanity, for each community and each country still under colonization or under occupation. This planet is very important, that we can live together in this planet without all this hate, without all this violence, that the only country creating this and make all this world unstable, it’s Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play the words of Juliano Mer-Khamis, again, the co-founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre. He was killed in 2011 in Jenin, shot by masked assailants. We talked to him when he was in the United States. He talked about the theater’s mission, that you’re sitting in right now, the theater that is once again ransacked. This is Juliano.

JULIANO MER-KHAMIS: My name is Juliano, and I’m the director of the Freedom Theatre in Jenin refugee camp. The Freedom Theatre is a venue to join the Palestinian people in their struggle for liberation. We believe that the Third Intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural, with poetry, music, theater, cameras and magazines.

This place never had a theater. This place never was exposed to these arts. So, actually, we are building everything from scratch. We are building capacity, building of actors. We are building capacity, people of audience. You know, sometimes it’s easier to create actors than audience. We are dealing with the young generation to expose them to these arts.

The location of the Freedom Theatre — and don’t let this view to deceive you — we are sitting in the mid of the most attacked and poor refugee camp in Palestine: the refugee camp of Jenin. We are talking about almost 3,000 children under the age of 15 suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It means they pee in their pants when they are 11. It means they cannot concentrate. They cannot deal with each other without violence.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a promotional video that Juliano Mer-Khamis did for the Jenin Freedom Theatre, talking about the theater’s mission. And we’re right now in the Jenin theater, in the Freedom Theatre, with one of the people who — Ahmed Tobasi, who is now the artistic director. Juliano was killed, assassinated in 2011. So, Ahmed Tobasi, you were held for 24 hours. The general manager of the theater, Mustafa Sheta, is still being held. Do you know what’s happening to him, and the other scores of men who have been taken at this point, Israel saying they are Hamas?

AHMED TOBASI: You know, in a way, that the Freedom Theatre, as you said and as you mentioned, being attacked all the time, that Jenin camp being attacked, it’s like we are part of this place, and the Israelis have no differences to look at the organizations, like Freedom Theatre as an artistic, cultural organization which should be safe as an international organization.

Yes, at the same time, Mustafa Sheta also was taken, the same time I was taken. And I think he been taken to other place, which is clearly that they’re going to hold him. We still do not have any information about him. Soon after this program, I will go to his family to see if they got any news about him. But, for sure, there is many friends around the world trying to push to get some information or at least to push to release him.

Another student also was also arrested yesterday. You know, even our kids, after the July invasion, being killed in front of the theater. We have now three people, three young people, been killed from the children of the Freedom Theatre. And still, like 15 years now, 20 years, we work in building this place. In the last July, been destroyed. We rebuild it again. We fix it again. But now, after two, three months, again they come and destroy everything. They even stole the computers. It’s crazy. This army have no morals. They steal computers. They are not soldiers. They are just thieves.

But, yeah, it’s crazy that — we talked to a lawyer, that he’s going to start looking for information and see what the situation of Mustafa. But, for sure, Israelis do not give informations that easy, and because he’s still not in, like, a clear prison. He still may be under interrogation. And that’s what we are worrying about, because also the head of the board of the Freedom Theatre been already one year, arrested before one year, and there is no any clear evidence about what is the accuse about him.

So, you see, as an artistic field, as an artist in Palestine, that’s the way that we live our life. That’s the way we do our theater, our work in art. We are not looked as a different way. But that’s our mission. That’s my mission, to keep the Freedom Theatre open, to save Juliano’s legacy and keep fighting for the same things that we believe. And we know that in Palestine, to be an artist, that’s also a chance that you’re going to be arrested or killed even.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end today’s show, if you will stay with us, Ahmed, with another theater director, Peter Schumann, the 89-year-old co-founder of the legendary Bread and Puppet Theater. It’s here in New York at the Theater for the New City with a show that is an ode to Gaza. I went to it last night. Peter, we only have a minute. Then we’re going to continue the conversation after with Ahmed. But if you can — if you want to share your thoughts with Ahmed right now about what you’re doing as he called for solidarity with his theater?

PETER SCHUMANN: Oh my god, Amy, just to listen to this report of Ahmed and this company. Oh my god, I’m crying all the way through it, in fury and in solidarity. It’s unbearable. Unbearable. And to think that this stupid organization called the Freedom and Democracy, or some [bleep] like that, that doesn’t exist —

AMY GOODMAN: You can’t curse, Peter. You cannot curse on the air.

PETER SCHUMANN: OK, no more cursing. OK, no. Big honor. It’s so wonderful. Right. Unbelievable that this is a Congress of cowards, a president who seems to be an idiot. So that’s a curse. It’s unbelievable what this country is supporting. I don’t get it, because it isn’t just Israel at all.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask —

PETER SCHUMANN: It’s the weapons and the —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask, in the last 30 seconds, Ahmed Tobasi, about the U.S. position, and if you have a message, Ahmed, for President Biden?

AHMED TOBASI: I’m sorry for the Americans that the Israel — all the support of taxpayers goes to Israel to kill children and kill women. For me, this money should go to create art, to create culture, to support artists, to build theaters, to build artistic and cultural organizations all over the world, to save artists in China, in Russia, even in U.S. I want this money not goes to create weapons. Americans, you are getting your picture in a way — not in a right way, because all this military support and all this military crazy support goes to change your pictures as a human. I believe our friends in America — we have the Friends of the Freedom Theatre in New York. They are Jewish, and they are supporting us. And I’m asking them: Change the tax.

AMY GOODMAN: Ahmed, we have to leave it there. Ahmed Tobasi, artistic director of Freedom Theatre, just released by Israel, and Peter Schumann. Thank you.

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