Famed Militant Tries New Tack as Jenin Theater Director

The war being waged in Jenin over the last few days is completely different from the sort the West Bank city has known in recent years. It is a culture war between groups and individuals who wish to advance artistic projects, and those fighting them in the name of Islam.

The entrance to the city's Freedom Theater, founded by actor Juliano Mer Khamis, was torched four days ago. Not long before that, a music center run by the al-Kamanjati organization also was set ablaze. An announcement at the city's mosque blasted Mer and theater employees as depraved and immoral.

In a possible attempt to fend off attacks against both the theater and himself, Mer held a news conference Monday with Zakariya Zubeidi, in which he announced the latter's appointment as theater director.

A former commander of the militant Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and one of the symbols of the second intifada, the 33-year-old Zubeidi also garnered media attention for his relationship with Israeli activist Tali Fahima.

Two months ago, Zubeidi began his new job as an official in the Palestinian Authority's prisoners division, and now he has added the title of Jenin theater director as well as vice deputy of civic institutions in the Jenin refugee camp.

Zubeidi's appointment was most likely an attempt by Mer to block future attacks on the theater. It seems that Mer's mixed Jewish and Arab descent hindered him from running the theater free of threats and harassment, despite his well-meant effort to gain the sympathy of residents of the Jenin refugee camp.

Armed struggle not ruled out

During the news conference, Mer unleashed one provocative anti-occupation comment after the other. "I do not rule out armed struggle," he said, bounding with confidence and strikingly charismatic.

"An armed struggle is legitimate as long as it is directed at an occupier, and conducted on occupied land. An occupied people can act against its occupier in any means necessary," Mer said, adding, "None of us here may prevent someone from carrying a gun."

"But if there's no history, culture, or art behind that gun, then that gun is killing instead of liberating," he said.

Mer continued, promising that the theater "will not accept funding from any Israeli source," adding that decision on the matter was "final."

"I want to make it clear: I support one Palestinian state, from the sea to the [Jordan] river. If the Jews want to live among us, they're welcome."

Despite Mer's extreme positions and the appointment of Zubeidi, it is doubtful future attacks have been prevented. The theater will continue to be perceived as a foreign agent by Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters.

The theater has been running for almost four years; its latest production was George Orwell's "Animal Farm."

Zubeidi, who spoke for a few minutes after Mer, was suspicious of the recent quiet in Jenin, and warned of yet another round of violence in the West Bank.

"It's the quiet before the storm," Zubeidi said, telling Haaretz that he is "pessimistic."

"Apart from an increase in residents' security and an end to the chaos, there are no real advances," he said. "True, the weapons are off the streets and you can safely enter Jenin, but the settlements, the settlers' harassment of Palestinians, the arrests, that is all still happening.

'Everything is under occupation'

"People don't have a genuine sense of financial security. Everything, ultimately, is still under occupation. There's a deep sense of frustration. No prisoner releases, no negotiations. The siege stands, and all hope is lost."

Zubeidi added, "Every day we suffer the occupation, and even the PA and its security establishments function as protectors of Israel. Even the Arab countries attack us for surrendering."

However, Zubeidi is cautious about Israeli security assessments that recent attacks were forerunners of another wave of violence.

"They were specific operations by independent individuals. But, undoubtedly, if the Israeli pressure continues, we may witness organized action," Zubeidi said.

"As with every confrontation, things can begin small and end big. The Israeli people must give the Palestinians what's rightfully theirs. Shame on you. Enough's enough," he added.

And what about you? Will you return to your wanted status?

"I have already made up my mind. I will not agree to turn myself in and sit in an Israeli jail. It's clear to me that if things go sour, then the Israelis will hunt for me again. And then I would be forced to return to my old ways. I will not sit in an Israeli jail. That's final," Zubeidi repeated.

The quiet in Jenin and the PA's action against Hamas and Islamic Jihad have also brought a kind of economic growth. Israel has allowed its Arab citizens to enter the city, and they came in droves on Monday.

About 300 Israeli Arabs from Shfaram, Eblin, and other towns, came to shop, visit friends or eat out. The PA arranged for buses to transport the visitors from Jalame checkpoint to the city's center, and even allocated parking spots.

PA security forces are maintaining a significant presence in Jenin. A., a resident of the city, mockingly said that PA security is slowly becoming a kind Israeli border police, adding that they "maintain Israel's security day and night."