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April 2002 Invasion

In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams

Boyhood Hopes Forged on Theater Stage Dissolve in Reality of Intifada

By Molly Moore
From the Washington Post
July 19, 2004

Photo of Mahmoud Kaneri sits next to a grave stone. Many of stonemason Mahmoud Kaneri’s closest friends now lie beneath tombstones he crafted. “I remember the stories, the jokes, the kind of things we did,” he said, recalling their days in an experimental theater group. “It was an illusion. We were struck by reality.” (Molly Moore – The Washington Post)
(Click photo to enlarge.)

JENIN REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank – As Mahmoud Kaneri, 25-year-old stonemason, traced the name across the polished tombstone in the Jenin Martyrs Cemetery, he was transported to another time and another place – a theater stage where he and his closest childhood friends once stood in shimmering robes and delivered lines imbued with optimism.

The boy whose name spilled across the white limestone beneath his fingertips had played the prince. Kaneri had been a wise man. It was the hopeful year of 1994, just after the Oslo peace accords.

“We were so happy,” said Kaneri, a towering man with limpid eyes the color of rich toffee. “We fell in love with acting. We thought we’d continue and become something. The sky was the limit.”

They were seven neighborhood boys who bonded on the stage of an experimental theater group that won international recognition for bringing a sliver of peace and hope to an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp.

Of the seven boyhood friends, today only two have eluded death or imprisonment. Each time he creates a tombstone for another friend, Kaneri said, he replays the tortuous journey from childhood ambitions acted out on a stage of dreams to manhood in a secret society of Palestinian suicide attackers and armed fighters.

Their lives and deaths offer an intimate glimpse into the murky network of militancy that has transformed the nature of warfare between Palestinians and Israelis and altered the everyday lives of both peoples. The path each young man chose helps explain the roots of the nearly five-year-old Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and why it remains resilient.

Alaa Sabagh became leader of the Jenin cell of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the militant group associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement, and was assassinated in an Israeli missile attack. Ashraf Haija and Nidal Swatat served as Sabagh’s foot soldiers and were killed during an Israeli military incursion.

Photo of Majdi Kaneri. Majdi Kaneri
(Click photo for more information.)

Yousef Swatat, Nidal’s brother, helped gun down four Israelis on a crowded city street, then was shot dead by Israeli police. Daoud Zbeida is being held without charges in an Israeli prison.

Kaneri, the stonemason, designs memorials for his fallen friends. Majdi Kaneri, a distant relative of Mahmoud, is an unemployed construction worker. For the survivors, the consequences are intimate and painful.

“We dreamed of becoming actors,” said Majdi Kaneri, 25, who knocked down walls and helped bring the sun into the castle on that hopeful stage a decade ago. “Now, my only feeling is sadness. You look at your friends. You can’t find one of them. The agony of this group represents the agony of the whole camp.”

Daring to Hope

Photo of Yousef Swatat. Yousef Swatat
(Click photo for more information.)

Fifteen-year-old Yousef Swatat, in a brilliant red blouse and flowing black cape, stood atop a ladder on a darkened stage and clasped an imaginary sun in his outstretched hands.

“If I bring the sun into the palace, I will be king,” he shouted to the heavens on a night in 1994 in “The Little Oil Lamp,” a Palestinian writer’s tale of imagination and cunning overcoming hardship and manmade obstacles.

Sukina Swatat remembers the hope she dared embrace as she watched her son and the other boys onstage: “I thought maybe they’d receive a scholarship and study outside and be prominent citizens.”

From the streets of a refugee camp coated with the thick dust of poverty and seething with the frustration of an earlier Palestinian uprising, the boys were chosen for the theater by a brassy, outspoken Israeli Jew, Arna Mer Khamis. She picked them out from hundreds of children she sponsored in an educational program that won the prestigious international Right Livelihood Award, presented annually in Stockholm the day before the Nobel Peace Prize is announced. The 1993 award jury praised Mer Khamis’s project “for outstanding vision” as a prototype for changing the destinies of children snared in poverty and war.

As part of the program, Mer Khamis and her son, Juliano, a rising star in Israeli theater, designed and outfitted a stage, sound system and rehearsal rooms for a modern theater in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp. Delegations of Israeli officials and journalists and international aid groups walked the rutted lanes of the camp to attend the plays and visit the classrooms.

“You were nobody, then you were famous,” said Mahmoud Kaneri. “Everybody knew you. We were the center of attention. We were favored at school. We were something special in the eyes of everybody.”

The project collapsed soon after Arna Mer Khamis died of cancer in 1995. The boys of the stage once again became like hundreds of other youths in the camp – no longer set apart in the eyes of their neighbors and teachers.

After a year of high school, Mahmoud Kaneri joined his family’s construction business. Yousef Swatat finished high school, then became a homicide investigator for the newly created Palestinian Authority. Alaa Sabagh dropped out of school, worked sporadically in his father’s refrigerator repair shop and, according to his father, stole cars for extra cash on the side. The others found work as laborers.

The young men began mocking their own dreams, joking sarcastically about what they had not become.

“If you were an actor now, you would be wearing a three-piece suit with a tie,” Mahmoud Kaneri remembers needling Swatat one day as he stopped by for a visit wearing his Palestinian police uniform. “Everybody would respect you.”

At the same time, the hopes stirred by the Oslo peace agreement collapsed into disappointment throughout the Palestinian territories. Mounting frustration gave birth to the current intifada in September 2000. Over the months, Israeli troops pushed deeper into the refugee camp and adjacent neighborhoods of the city of Jenin as the violence between Palestinians and Israelis escalated. Even so, the Palestinians carrying out suicide bombings in cafes and buses in Israeli cities seemed remote from the group of friends who continued to meet after work for coffee and chatter in the Jenin refugee camp.

“The tanks started shelling just as children were arriving at the school; the director gathered the children in the yard into a ground-floor classroom. One girl was hit in the doorway of the room and Riham, who turned to help her, was hit in the heart and died before reaching the hospital.”

Amnesty International,
“Killing the Future”

On Oct. 18, 2001, an Israeli tank shell slammed into the schoolyard near Swatat’s police station. He raced to the scene and found a 9-year-old girl hemorrhaging from the shrapnel that had torn apart her flesh. According to accounts from his family and friends, Swatat gathered the child in his arms, but she died before he could get her to a hospital.

“The girl changed his life,” recalled Kaneri, who said Swatat talked obsessively about her death.

Swatat’s father, Hamad Abu Swatat, 59, a retired school janitor, said his son’s “conduct changed dramatically – for the better, not the worse. At the police force, he was always fighting with his supervisors. He stopped that. I felt good when I saw him becoming a good person. He even started praying.”

But for the boy who had been the biggest comedian and had the loudest laugh in the theater group, watching the life seep out of an innocent schoolgirl seemed to crystallize his own despair over the lost dreams of his childhood, the reality of a job that paid little, bosses he loathed and a war that was sapping Palestinians of hope.

“Nothing is more dangerous than to kill a dream,” said Swatat’s mother, Sukina, who keeps a copy of the script from “The Little Oil Lamp” with Yousef’s lines.

Ten days after the girl’s death, two Palestinians in a sport-utility vehicle opened fire with automatic rifles on a bus stop at a busy intersection in Hadera, an Israeli city 26 miles west of Jenin. The assailants killed four Israelis and wounded 40 before Israeli policemen gunned them down. One of the gunmen was Swatat.

Photo of Ashraf Haija. Ashraf Haija
(Click photo for more information.)

Swatat’s closest friend from the theater troupe, Ashraf Haija, rushed to Mahmoud Kaneri’s house.

“Did you know it was Yousef?” he asked breathlessly.

“Which Yousef?” Kaneri asked.

“Our Yousef,” came the reply. “Yousef Swatat.”

Kaneri did not believe him. “I went outside and looked at the house of Yousef’s family. They were crying. Tears came to my eyes.”

The militant organization Islamic Jihad released a videotape showing a visibly uncomfortable Swatat stiffly reading a farewell message: “To my brothers, my family and all my loved ones, don’t be sad. It is a sacrifice.” His accomplice, a next-door neighbor, stood next to him, also clothed in camouflage and wearing the black headband of Islamic Jihad.

“None of us suspected Yousef could do something like that,” said Majdi Kaneri. “I’d seen him just four or five hours before. He shook my hand and gave me a couple of kisses. Usually he just shook hands, but I didn’t take it seriously.”

The young men who’d grown up with Swatat said they learned that their friend had not been recruited to carry out a suicide attack, as Israeli intelligence officials announced at the time. Swatat’s friends and relatives said he spread the word that he needed a gun to carry out an assault – not as part of any organization, but simply on behalf of the girl. Over a cup of thick Arabic coffee, a member of Islamic Jihad offered him a gun in return for allowing the organization to claim responsibility, Kaneri said.

Even so, friends insisted they did not believe Swatat’s decision could be explained as vengeance against Israel for killing a schoolgirl. Rather, they said, it was a complex mixture of shock at the death, and his own despair.

“I never heard a word of revenge out of him,” said Kaneri. “It was more pity: ‘It’s not fair for this girl to die.’

“Some people express rage by throwing themselves from high buildings,” the stonemason continued. “Some cut their veins. It depends on the individual.”

“He was the most romantic, the most sentimental of all of us ,” said Zakaria Zbeida, 28, who now is commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin. His mother had donated the top floor of her apartment house to build the theater, and his brother Daoud is the member of the troupe now in prison. “In the play, the whole world opened before his eyes, because he was the king. Now he sees a child torn to pieces before his eyes. A person feels all his childhood was a lie, all his life was a lie.”

A Militant’s Path

Photo of Alaa Sabagh. Alaa Sabagh
(Click photo for more information.)

As a youngster, Alaa Sabagh was the most shy and withdrawn of the neighborhood boys. In 1992, when he was a teenager, Israeli troops demolished his family’s house and jailed his brother for killing an Israeli soldier.

Yousef Swatat and his group of theater enthusiasts drew the sad-eyed youngster into their circle. They encouraged his talents for painting and drawing and nudged him to take part in the production of the plays. Slowly, Sabagh shed his perpetual pout and became part of the raucous, joking brotherhood of the theater.

When the theater group disbanded, however, Sabagh was the first to drop out of school.

“He was a stubborn, moody boy,” said his father, Ahmed Sabagh, 75, who owned a refrigerator repair service and pushed his son to take an interest in the shop. “Every day he made trouble for the teachers. He used to beat up the teachers and throw rocks at them. He always wanted to get kids out of school to throw rocks at soldiers. I used to beat him to make him stop doing these kinds of things. He never listened to me.”

Sabagh said he tried to interest his son in the repair business, but he said Alaa preferred to make money in the stolen car trade that flourished between Israel and the West Bank.

By the time the Palestinian uprising exploded in the fall of 2000, Sabagh’s friends noticed that although he remained close to them, he began associating with an older crowd. At 23, he was roughly their age, but they regarded him as a more knowledgeable elder. He had developed a charismatic personality that seemed to draw others to him.

In the early days of the uprising, attacks against Israel by religious militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Islamic Resistance Movement, known as Hamas, spurred supporters of Arafat’s secular Fatah movement to try to keep pace. They began arming young men from refugee camps and villages across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling them the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, in a tribute to the revered mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City.

Sabagh, who his friends and parents said still harbored bitterness toward Israelis for demolishing his childhood home and jailing his older brother, was among the first of the young men in the camp to join their ranks – despite the objections of his father.

“I don’t want you to walk this path,” his father recalled saying, his voice growing husky. “He never listened.” Of children like Alaa, he added: “You can’t control them. They do what they want.”

A year after the intifada started, Alaa Sabagh drove to an Israeli checkpoint on the edge of Jenin in a car he had repaired for an Arab friend living in Israel. When he arrived at the checkpoint, he pulled out a rifle and shot an Israeli guard at his post, according to his father and friends. Sabagh escaped, and despite being put on Israel’s list of Palestinians wanted for arrest, he got married at the urging of his family.

As Palestinian suicide bombings inside Israel and attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers in the Palestinian territories intensified in the spring of 2002, Israeli troops and tanks made repeated incursions into Jenin.

Photo of Nidal Swatat. Nidal Swatat
(Click photo for more information.)

Sabagh assembled his guerrillas to prepare the camp for more clashes. He turned to his friends from the theater. Ashraf Haija, 23, who had been Yousef Swatat’s best friend, joined him, according to Haija’s family. Swatat’s 21-year-old brother, Nidal, became a fighter under the auspices of Islamic Jihad, his family said.

When Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers roared into the camp again in early April 2002, Sabagh and Haija took up positions in the same room where they once laughed and joked as Arna Mer Khamis dressed them in fancy robes, Sabagh said in a videotaped interview before he was killed. They stocked the old rehearsal room with grenades and homemade bombs and hacked holes in the walls to spy on the advancing Israeli soldiers and position their rifles for an ambush.

As the fighting intensified, Sabagh left to coordinate fighters at another location. Ten days later, after one of the most intense and deadly battles of the intifada, Ashraf Haija and Nidal Swatat were among the more than 50 Palestinians killed. The rooms that once housed their stage were destroyed by Israeli missiles, along with the entire heart of the refugee camp.

Israeli soldiers took Sabagh prisoner, according to his father, but he gave the soldiers a fake name. Believing that Alaa Sabagh had been killed in the fighting, the Israelis released him 55 days later.

“I hoped he would stay in jail,” said his father. “He wanted to die. I saw it in his eyes.”

When Sabagh left prison, he became the new commander of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in Jenin, replacing a senior commander killed in the Israeli incursion.

Sabagh skulked from hideout to hideout, once living in a concrete culvert for weeks, once spending days in a hole in the rubble of his parents’ house, which had been destroyed during the battle of Jenin, his father said.

In the second week of November 2002, Sabagh’s wife – whom he had seen only sporadically since their marriage – gave birth to a son. Through friends, he dispatched secret messages to his wife to set up clandestine meetings. Over the next two weeks, Sabagh stole two brief visits with his wife and baby, according to his father.

At about 11:20 p.m. on Nov. 26, 2002, Israeli aircraft fired a missile into a house on the southwestern side of the Jenin refugee camp. Sabagh was hiding inside with the local leader of Islamic Jihad. His wife and son were not with him. In the photograph on the posters pasted on walls across Jenin the next day, Sabagh cradles not a gun, but the infant son he saw twice.

“I was told later, that during the really harsh period when he was wanted by the Israelis, that Alaa told his friends, ‘I wish I’d listened to my father,’ ” the elder Sabagh said.

Forms of Resistance

Mahmoud Kaneri folded his 6-foot-2 frame next to the row of tombstones he designed for the boys from the theater. For Kaneri, who remained on the fringes of the close-knit clan of militancy, survival has become its own form of torture.

“Sometimes you sit by yourself and think it over,” said Kaneri, gazing across the Jenin Martyrs Cemetery where his brother and so many of his friends lie beneath headstones he crafted. “You think you’re living in a dream. It’s next to impossible to believe what happened.”

Creating headstones for the fallen is his therapy.

“The theater was a base for us to become distinguished people,” he said. “They were all distinguished in the theater. They were distinguished here. Their tombs should be distinguished. That is my job.

“Each time I build a tombstone, the film starts rolling,” he continued. “I remember the stories, the jokes, the kind of things we did. It was an illusion. We were struck by reality.”

His long, elegant fingers plucked absently at a dead leaf on a geranium atop the nearest grave.

“While you are making the headstone, you are crying,” said Kaneri. “You never thought you’d design the tomb for a friend, or a brother.”

At home, a few blocks from the building that once housed the theater, he voices emotions that border on guilt over the fact that he, unlike most of the others, is still alive.

“I’m not different than them,” Kaneri said, watching his 3-year-old daughter play with a kitten next to him on a living room sofa. “Resistance comes in many forms. Everybody chose to resist in his own way. Not everybody who resists becomes a martyr. It’s not like the only condition is to carry a gun. Maybe helping your family is part of the resistance.

“I am the man of the house,” he added. “I support the wife of my martyred brother, the wife of my wanted brother and their five kids, my mother, my younger brother, my wife, my two children. I built this house and moved them here. Don’t you think that’s part of the resistance?”

Juliano Mer Khamis, who worked with his mother in the theater, returned to the refugee camp after the 2002 invasions and directed a documentary tracing the history of the theater group, splicing footage of the children’s plays with scenes of carnage from the ongoing conflict. “Arna’s Children” shared the prize for best documentary at the New York Tribeca Film Festival in May.

“Some people ask me if my mother failed,” Mer Khamis said on recent night, sitting at the kitchen table of his house in the Israeli port city of Haifa. “They say, ‘She wanted to make actors of them and they became terrorists.’

“From my perspective, it’s a success that people stood up and fought for their rights,” said Mer Khamis, who said he recently lost his contract to work in Israeli theaters because of his pro-Palestinian sympathies. “Arna told them to fight for their rights.”

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