Bethlehem’s 2002 siege recalled in new Freedom Theatre play

The Jenin-based Freedom Theatre is scheduled to lift the curtain on its new theatrical production, The Siege, this Saturday.

The play opens as part of a day of cultural events at the theater in the occupied West Bank planned to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the assassination of its co-founder, Juliano Mer Khamis. His murder remains unsolved.

The date is also the thirteenth anniversary of the massive invasion of Jenin refugee camp by the Israeli army. Known as Operation Defensive Shield, that invasion saw large areas of the camp demolished and dozens of people killed.

Another of the Israeli military’s actions during Defensive Shield was the invasion of central Bethlehem and the subsequent 39-day siege at the Church of the Nativity.

It is this event which forms the central story to the Freedom Theatre’s new play.

Leaving homeland forever

In March 2002, fighters fleeing the Israeli army’s advance in the center of Bethlehem joined 200 priests, nuns and inhabitants of homes around Manger Square as they took refuge in the Church of the Nativity, one of Christianity’s holiest sites.

During a siege lasting almost six weeks, the world’s press debated whether their presence “desecrated” a sacred site, or whether it was part of a long tradition of sanctuary offered by places of prayer.

The Freedom Theatre has recorded what was happening inside the church as that debate took place: “the besieged are hungry and weakening. The smell of unwashed bodies and broken lavatories is mixed with the stench from the suppurating wounds of the injured. Two dead bodies are decomposing in a cave below the church. While the world is watching, the fighters are faced with the question of whether to struggle to the end or to surrender. No matter what they choose, they will have to leave their families and their homeland behind forever.”

The script of The Siege is based on accounts from some of those who took refuge in the church, interviewed by the play’s directors. In some cases, the fighters are living in exile in Europe.

As such, it is both a project of historical documentation, as well as work of art.

The Freedom Theatre’s plans come despite the arrest and continued detention of Mustafa Sheta, one of the organization’s board members and a local United Nations worker, journalist and activist in Jenin. The 35-year-old father of three was seized at home in the early hours of 19 March, just the latest in the near-continuous harassment by Israeli forces of those involved in the theater.

An update on the theater’s Facebook page yesterday stated that “the court hearing that was scheduled for today was postponed another week. We hope to know more soon.”

Other Freedom Theatre projects have also faced challenges, with participants in the Freedom Bus theatrical tour of Palestine recently denied entry into Jerusalem to take part in an event at the city’s Hakawati Theater.

Despite this, the theater says that it still plans to take its April Palestinian tour of The Siege — which also includes dates in Ramallah, Bir Zeit and Bethlehem — to Jerusalem.

Freedom Theatre actors also face the challenge of entering Britain for a second tour of The Siege, covering dates in England and Scotland during May and June this year.

In what organizers have called the “biggest touring production ever performed in the UK by a Palestinian theater company,” The Siege will be staged in Salford, Colchester, London, Hastings, Frome, Plymouth, Birmingham, Nottingham, Liverpool and Glasgow.

But the theater company has faced difficulties obtaining visas to enter Britain before. In 2014, artistic director Nabil al-Raee was denied a visa by the UK Border Agency, which has in recent years become notoriously hostile to visiting artists from Arabic-speaking countries.


Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.