On April 2 2002, during the second Intifada, Israeli forces and Palestinian terrorists squared off in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Palestinian militants had locked themselves inside the building on orders from the Palestinian Authority and had been using the church as a temporary base. The siege lasted a little more than a month, prompting global media coverage and shocking the Vatican.
Archbishop Tauran, exasperated with the use of a church as a center for conflict, said, “The occupation of the holy places by armed men is a violation of a long tradition of law that dates back to the Ottoman era. Never before have they been occupied for such a lengthy time by armed men. It has become a practical necessity to find a solution.”
In an eventual deal, the most wanted Palestinians were exiled to Europe, and no fighting took place inside the church.
In remembrance of these events, the Jenin Freedom Theatre will soon bring a play called “The Siege” to the United Kingdom. According to the play organizers, the production of this play, which will represent the theater’s artistic take on events, is supported by the [European Union] and the British Council. The UK tour is supported by Arts Council England.
Partners in the production of the play in the UK include the Battersea Arts Centre, Essex University, The Lowry Theatre and Scottish Refugee Week. Together with these groups, the Friends of Jenin Freedom Theatre said that they hope to “set a standard and precedent for British and Palestinian artists collaborating together in a deep and meaningful exchange of culture, ideas and practices, and to offer a platform to explore with our audiences the relationship between Britain and Palestine, focusing on the social, religious and political.”
The script of The Siege play is based on interviews with the terrorists who used the Church of the Nativity as a makeshift hideout, a decision that led to the siege itself. The producers of the play explained, “Working with the established Palestinian journalist Ismael Jaberine, we have traveled across Europe meeting the exiled Palestinian fighters who took refuge in the Church of the Nativity and whose story we are basing the production on.”
While theater companies have the right and responsibility to challenge political actors through art, many of the men featured prominently in “The Siege” have murdered innocent people – but the uneducated observer would never be told this by the Friends of the Jenin Freedom Theatre or their website.
A Palestinian fighter named Ibrahim Abayat features prominently in promotional material for “The Siege,” where he speaks about the need to be “steadfast” in the face of Israel. In a YouTube promotional video for the play, Abayat explained that “the basics of steadfastness is to organize your internal situation and to see how many fighters you have – to see if you have the possibility to be steadfast; to see if you have the possibility to resist. Not steadfastness for the sake of it; you have to resist any attempts at invasion. We managed to organize ourselves quite well.”
To fully understand who Abayat is and who his fellow fighters are, it is worth digging a little deeper to see why Israel had marked him and his colleagues as terrorists.
In January 2002 – just three months before the events in the church – Jewish-American Avi Boaz, 71, visited the Christian village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, as he was a supporter of and eager contributor to Palestinian community projects. Boaz was still in his car when men from the Bethlehem division of the Al Aqsa Brigades terror group stopped him, drove him to a nearby soccer field and shot him.
The commander of the Al Aqsa Brigades in Bethlehem was none other than Ibrahim Abayat who, with Lieutenant Jihad Jaara, abducted and killed Boaz. Abayat had first risen to fame in Palestinian society by carrying out an honor killing, and he boasted to The New York Times that he and his men murdered a settler in her car earlier in January 2012. Abayat was also involved in a string of shootings against Israelis in their cars, events that led to the deaths of Sarit Amrani, Avraham Fisch, Aharon Gorov and Devorah Friedman. Abayat’s “steadfastness” actually found expression in his random Israeli slayings.
Boaz’s daughter Idi Cohen spoke about how friendly her father had been toward Bethlehem’s Arab population before he was killed, and she stressed that those Palestinians were “more than his friends. They were his family.” She added, “He knew Beit Jala better than he knew Jerusalem. He worked there for many years. He trusted them and always believed that things would turn out well. I always worried about him because of his travels to that area. He always answered, ‘Nothing will to happen to me.’”
Tragically, Boaz’s friendliness toward Palestinians – not bigotry or suspicion – made him an easy target for the Al Aqsa Brigades. According to Palestinian, U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessments, Jaara had masterminded Boaz’s murder.
In The New York Times, Joshua Hammer noted that Boaz’s murder “galvanized public opinion” as Israel prepared for Operation Defensive Shield, a mission to dismantle the terror networks in the West Bank and curb the onslaught of attacks against Israeli civilians.
Fearing arrest as Israeli forces moved in on Bethlehem-based militiamen, fighters linked to Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad terror groups overtook the Church of the Nativity in March 2002. Soldiers from the Shaldag Special Forces Unit suddenly found themselves up against terrorists who had barricaded themselves in the house of worship. Jihad Jaara, who had been shot in the leg by one of his own men during the chaos, was brought into the church by the Palestinian terrorists.
Jaara found himself holed up with his commander, Ibrahim Abayat, and other Palestinians who had blood on their hands. Their colleagues with them in the church included Mohammed Said Salem of Fatah, who planned two suicide bombings in Jerusalem that killed 12; Ibrahim Musa Abayat, who fired mortars at Jewish residents of Gilo and was involved in killing three Israelis; and Hamas’ Basem Hamud, who prepared bombs for the group and sent two suicide bombers on an unsuccessful mission to Jerusalem.
Ibrahim Abayat had told Hammer in a Manger Square restaurant that “if we die, we are martyrs, and if we succeed, it is another nail in the coffin of the Israeli occupation.” Confrontation with Israelis was something that Abayat would purposefully seek throughout his activities as an Al Aqsa commander.
As they were pursued by Israeli forces, the Al Aqsa Brigades’ terror leaders realized the global importance of the Bethlehem church and calculated correctly that Israel’s operating scope would be limited if they used the house of worship as a tactical base.
While artistic representations of tense and dramatic political events are perfectly healthy, and drama helps audiences reflect upon their political situations, it is troubling to hear the Jenin Freedom producers boasts that they are using culture “as a form of resistance” by amplifying the personalities and narratives of those like Ibrahim Abayat who deliberately sought out innocent Israelis to murder.
Viewers of “The Siege” will not be left with an accurate representation of the actual siege, which saw terror leaders enter a holy place and force innocent Christian clergymen and laymen to suffer alongside them in a month-long standoff. They will actually watch a romantic portrayal of “resistance fighters,” without understanding that this “resistance” took the form of elderly men being shot in the head at point-blank range and car bombs’ exploding in a packed public place.
The play organizer’s hope that the image of Israeli soldiers’ pointing their guns at a church will appear so powerful that the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s audience will not care about the crimes the Al Aqsa terrorists committed in the first place. Instead, by focusing their promotional material on the resistance fighters, the Jenin Freedom Theatre producers effectively sanitize terror activity.
While Palestine solidarity groups and activists in the UK are lauding this play, it is worth sparing at least a thought for the elderly activist Avi Boaz who showed his solidarity with Palestinians in many touching ways. But the main characters of “The Siege” murdered Boaz, they evaded justice and they are now being feted on stage.
This is an inconvenient truth, but it must be told. After all, no one will see Avi Boaz’s story on stage.