Former Palestinian gunman opens children's theater in Jenin

Zakariya Zubeidi: "We want to take the Palestinian cause to the people through theater."

zubeidi 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
zubeidi 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
He once carried an assault rifle and planned attacks on Israelis. Now, the retired Palestinian operative breaks up fights between children in a theater that he helped establish in the West Bank town of Jenin. The new role brings Zakariya Zubeidi full circle. As a child he was a founder-member of a children's theater group run by an Israeli woman seeking to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence. As he grew up, he became a gunman during years of fighting between Israelis and Palestinians and rose to become the head of the Al Aksa Martyrs' Brigades in his home town. Wanted by Israel for allegedly organizing roadside shootings and suicide bombing attacks, Zubeidi, 31, narrowly escaped several IDF attempts to capture or kill him. Last October he signed up for an Israeli amnesty and laid down his weapons. Next week, he is to formally open the "Freedom Theater" in the Jenin refugee camp, home to around 16,000 people. "We want to take the Palestinian cause to the people through theater," he said Wednesday, wearing his trademark Israeli military windbreaker, jeans and black boots. In the 300-seat hall, funded by private donations, six boys rehearsed for the theater's first production about a child who wants to establish a theater, but doesn't have enough money even to buy new socks. There aren't any girls in the troupe, said Nabil al-Rai, a drama teacher, because Muslim parents in the deeply conservative refugee camp will not approve of their daughters being physically close to boys. "We are thinking of producing a different play for the girls," al-Rai said. Audience seating is also divided between boys and girls, to reassure parents that their daughters won't be sitting next to males in the darkened theater. So far, the cautious approach has worked. "I come here with my sisters," said 12-year-old Janid Khaled, wearing a pink tracksuit and a Muslim headscarf. "There's no where else to go." The Freedom Theater has echoes of an older theater that once operated in the Jenin refugee camp. Arna Mer, an Israeli peace activist married to a Palestinian, taught theater in the crowded camp in the 1980s. The theater was destroyed during an Israeli offensive into the camp in 2002. Militants hid in the theater, including some of Arna's former students. "I used to do this work before the uprising," Zubeidi said, referring to the outbreak of fighting between Palestinians and Israelis seven years ago, "with six of my comrades. All of them were killed." Now, Arna's son, Juliano, an Israeli-Palestinian director and actor, is one of the instructors in the Freedom Theater. Zubeidi hasn't severed all links with his violent past. He stashed away his US-made assault rifle and pistol in October after a request by the Palestinian Authority, which is obligated to disarm militants under the US-backed "road map" plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but he has not handed his guns over to the authority as required. In the theater Wednesday, Zubeidi walked through the auditorium breaking up fights between boisterous children, speaking of his desire to serve the close-knit community of the refugee camp. "The children," he said. "If they weren't in here, they'd be on the streets."