On 13 April, however, the village gathered for something different. The Jenin-based Freedom Theater and its Freedom Bus crew had been invited to listen to and enact the autobiographical accounts of villagers who told stories of army violence, home demolitions, land confiscation and perhaps most importantly, their determination to stand firm in their struggle for justice.
A crowd of more than 200 gathered to stand in solidarity with the people of al-Walaja and to hear their stories.
Trapped behind high concrete slabs
Al-Walaja is a village facing imminent imprisonment and possible extinction. Every day, Volvo and Caterpillar trucks dig up a mountainside, preparing the way for another section of Israel’s wall. When complete, this wall will encircle al-Walaja, trapping its inhabitants behind a constant line of high concrete slabs.
In violation of international law, the people of al-Walaja have already had their land taken and their homes demolished. The real purpose of the wall is evident in its route. Its track snakes deep into the West Bank, annexing land and water resources far beyond the Green Line.
The protest on 13 April was held on a mountaintop that has been unilaterally declared as an Israeli National Park. This piece of land contains olive trees that have been harvested for generations by the people of al-Walaja.
The land is also connected to the home of Omar Hajajlah and his family. Their house, situated along the planned course of the wall, was scheduled for demolition. However, sustained pressure managed to avert this fate. Hajajlah has fought a long battle through the Israeli courts.
In 2010, the Israeli high court ruled in favor of allowing engineers encircle his house and effectively imprison his family with an electrified, four-meter-high barrier. A few months after that ruling a military tribunal decided that family’s only access to the world will be via a 5 million shekels ($1.3 million) tunnel connecting their home to the rest of al-Walaja (“Do fences make truly good neighbors?” The Palestine Monitor, 28 March 2012)
The Freedom Theater and its Freedom Bus crew had been invited to use “playback theater,” an interactive approach where audience members share autobiographical accounts and watch as a team of actors instantly transforms these stories into improvised pieces. Accompanying the Freedom Bus crew was Dar Qandeel (a group of musicians from Tulkarem) and the rapper Talha Alali Wise Wolf.
Luisa Morgantini, former vice-president of the European Union, was present along with a delegation of Italians. Local community members, artists, scholars, teachers, activists, journalists, travelers, children, youth and families also attended. The mood was one of joy and celebration.
Omar Hajajlah’s ten-year-old son Hakam was the first to speak to the crowd. As he looked out over the sea of faces, he stated that he felt a sense of “belonging.” Later, Omar himself spoke: “At this moment I feel free from the occupation!” he said. “Today I have found, through art and culture, another way to resist.”
Vivid illustrations of oppression and resistance
Potent words indeed, considering that a squadron of Israeli soldiers and police had been deployed to monitor the event and were watching from close by, heavily armed with their usual array of crowd control instruments. Their presence was a vivid illustration of a monolithic body intent upon the destruction not only of homes, but also of unarmed popular resistance.
Half an hour into the event, apparently threatened by the musicians, actors and their audience, the army closed off the entrance to the village, prohibiting further guests from arriving. But the event continued. The people of al-Walaja raised their voices and told their stories.
Each account was heard, mirrored and transformed into theatre on the outdoor “stage” — a patch of ground between olive trees. Dar Qandeel played and sang. The crowd joined and danced.
As the late Juliano Mer-Khamis, co-founder of the Freedom Theater who was killed last year, said: “We believe that the third intifada, the coming intifada, should be cultural” (“Juliano Mer-Khamis, activist who lived in two worlds, murdered in Jenin,” The Jewish Daily Forward, 6 April 2011).
As we gathered in al-Walaja, we remembered the power of music, theater, dance and poetry to lift and strengthen the human spirit in the struggle against oppression and injustice.
Ben Rivers works with the Freedom Theater in Jenin and is communications director of the Freedom Bus.