Reformed Palestinian terrorist becomes theater director in West Bank
Ex-militant Zbeidi named Freedom Theater director; mosque blasts founder as depraved and immoral.
The war that has been waging in Jenin over the last few days is of a completely different kind to the sort the West Bank city has known in recent years. It is a culture war between those groups and individuals who wish to advance artistic projects and others battling them in the name of Islam.
The entrance to the city's Freedom Theater, founded by actor Juliano Mer Khamis, was set alight four days ago. Not long before that, a music center run by the al-Kamanjati organization was also set ablaze. An announcement posted in the city's mosque blasted Mer and theater employees as being depraved and immoral.
In a possible attempt to fend off attacks both against the theater and himself, Mer held a news conference on Monday, together with Zakariya Zubeidi, in which he announced the latter's appointment as the theater's director.
A former commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades militant group, and one of the symbols of the second intifada, the 33-year-old Zubeidi also garnered media attention for his relationship with Israeli left-wing 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 the Jenin theater director, as well as vice-deputy of civic institutions in the Jenin refugee camp.
Zbeidi's appointment was most likely motivated by Mer's attempt to gain a kind of immunity from future attacks on the theater. It seems that Mer's Jewish and Arab descent hindered his desire to run the theater free from threats and harassment, despite his well-meant effort to gain the sympathy of residents of the Jenin refugee camp.
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 that, "None of us here is to prevent someone from carrying a gun."
"But if there's no history, culture, or art behind that gun than that gun is killing instead of liberating."
Mer continued, promising that the theater "will not accept funding from any Israeli side," 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, Ahalan wa Sahalan [Arabic for 'go ahead']."
Despite both the extreme positions Mer took and the appointment of Zbeidi as the theater's director, it is doubtful if either will help prevent the next attack. The theater will continue to be perceived as a foreign agent in the eyes of Hamas and Islamic Jihad supporters.
The theater has been running for almost four years; its latest production was of George Orwell's "Animal Farm."
'The quiet before the storm'
Zubeidi, who spoke for a few minutes after Mer's announcement, was suspicious of the recent quiet in Jenin, and warned of the outbreak of yet another round of violence in the West Bank.
"It's the quiet before the storm," Zubeidi said, thus describing the calm enveloping Jenin's refugee camp.
Zubeidi told Haaretz that he is "pessimistic."
"Apart from a rise in resident security and an end to 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.
"People don't have a genuine sense of financial security. Everything, ultimately, is still under occupation. There's a deep sense of frustration. No releases of prisoners, no negotiations. The siege stands, and all hope is lost."
Zubeidi added that, "every day we suffer the occupation and even the PA and its security establishments are tired to function as protectors of Israel. Even the Arab countries attack us for surrendering."
However, Zubeidi is cautious as to Israeli security assessments that recent attacks were forerunners of another wave of violence.
"They were specific operations acted out 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. It's a 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 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's streets 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 certainly flocked to the city on Monday.
About 300 Israeli Arabs from Shfaram, Eblin, and other towns, came to shop, visit friends, or eat out at restaurants. The PA arranged for buses to transport the visitors from Jalame checkpoint to the city's center, and even allocated designated parking spots.
PA security forces maintain 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."