Palestine’s Freedom Theatre shines spotlight on fighters dismissed as terrorists on first UK tour

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The upcoming UK tour of a Palestinian theatre company has created a stink over its exploration of a group of fighters that took shelter from the Israeli army in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002. Freedom Theatre’s artistic director and writer of The Siege Nabeel Raee explains why the company’s work is important.

Millions witnessed the Israeli army surround one of Christianity’s holiest sites and prepare for an assault on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity as the dramatic scenes played out on our TVs 13-years ago.

Around 200 Palestinians – mostly civilians, but also Palestinian police and armed militants – had taken refuge inside during an Israeli incursion in April, 2002. Over the next five weeks eight Palestinians were killed and 40 injured as snipers picked them off one-by-one. Several Israeli soldiers were injured too.

With Israel facing a PR nightmare if it attacked and the Palestinians refusing to surrender EU sponsored negotiations eventually began and a settlement was reached.

Thirty-nine days after the siege began and in front of the world’s media, 39 Palestinian’s wanted by Israel were escorted from the church one-by-one, put on buses and left the West Bank for a life in exile.

A different perspective

Thirteen years on the Freedom Theatre’s The Siege takes us back to those events, but instead we join the fighters inside the church; a perspective the 24-hour media coverage at the time was unable to cover, and some would prefer it was kept that way.

“I’m not a judge of those involved in the siege,” says Nabeel Raee, FT’s artistic director, who wrote and directed the play, “but it’s very important to see the journey of a human being before looking at them as a fighter. Our picture as Palestinian freedom fighters has been presented badly for years and years. For many people these are a group of terrorists – particularly in the big news headlines.

Freedom Theatre's artistic director Nabil Raee

Freedom Theatre’s artistic director Nabil Raee

“But it’s important to tell their story: who are these people, why did they join the struggle, why are they fighting, and what for? It’s very important for people to look at the side that wasn’t in the news.”

Nabeel said three friends of his were exiled when the standoff ended: one to Gaza, one to Ireland and one to Greece. “I knew these people and I know their choice [to take up arms] was made because they found a reason to fight back. Most of the fighters had several reasons.

“One of them had a hobby to hunt, but when he saw a small kid dying he was ashamed because his weapon was used on animals when he could be defending his people like this child who died.

“Another guy mentioned that his turning point was seeing a guy carrying a dead girl trying to run a kilometre to hospital; he didn’t believe she was dead, so he took her to the hospital, but when he got there they told him she was dead already.”

Such insights are rare, but important for those who have an interest in getting beyond debate-crushing labels: terrorists and terrorism.

The format of the play is akin to a docu-drama: introduced and presented by a Church of the Nativity tour guide reflecting on the historical and spiritual importance of the church, while the dramatised scenes during the siege cut to interviews of the exiled fighters.

The siege continues

But for Nabeel The Siege is about more than humanising the fighters and remembering an historical event. “We’ve been living under siege for almost 66-years of occupation, so when we present the siege of the nativity church, and what happened to the guys inside, we also want people to think about what living under siege means.

“The occupation is not just a physical occupation; it’s a mental one too: the fear inside of people, always living life on the edge, your way of thinking, and if you’re not worried about yourself, what about your children, and if not them, what about others?”

But, he says, it’s not just the Israeli occupation Palestinians – and the Freedom Theatre itself – have to contend with, but societal and personal occupations too whether caused by conservative attitudes or corrupt politics. The Freedom Theatre seeks to challenge all three.

“Theatre is a great way to fight them and to point and criticise, so that’s why I say, when [Palestinian] people see a play and say ‘no, you can’t present that’ then we’re provoking their emotions and minds to think, and that’s not an easy job. Sometimes they like it if it’s about the [Israeli] occupation and sometimes they don’t if it’s a direct criticism or questioning how [Palestinian] society is structured, and we don’t mind both. We’re not here to please all of the people, we’re also here to provoke and question.”

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Cultural resistance – Resisting Culture

As well as challenging political and social attitudes, the Freedom Theatre seeks to offer alternative ways of challenging the occupation and still recruits trainees from its base in the tough Jenin refugee camp where many fighters were born and killed.

“People can choose the way they want to fight back: you can hold a gun, but be dead the next minute, but what about art, what about culture? If you have lived enough you can tell the story.

“We ask how can we best serve the [Palestinian] people, but at the same time we are trying to build a professional company that can perform at a high level, and also to bring back the question: what is the point of theatre? It’s not only a tool. It’s also a very important way of presenting different causes.”

However, the challenges the Freedom Theatre faces in using art and culture to promote, question and resist are stark. Its founder Juliano Mer-Khamis was murdered four years ago in Jenin. His killer has never been caught, but it’s suspected Juliano was a victim of the challenging nature of FT’s work in what can be a conservative society. Despite being “angry, afraid and hurt” Nabeel said it was not a difficult decision to continue with the theatre otherwise “Juliano was killed for nothing”.

“I think we have a love-hate relationship with art in our society. Not only the Freedom Theatre, but almost every theatre in Palestine is struggling to bring it back. One of the best theatre scenes was in the early 1920s, so art was lost in between and people lost their connection to it. Now we are trying to say that art is also another way of resisting different types of occupation, so if people can think about it in this way they can see art in a better way.”

But for now the Freedom Theatre is focusing on its first tour of the UK, which begins in Manchester on Wednesday and concludes six weeks later in Glasgow. Nabeel says he hopes it will be a two-way experience; not only informing and performing for a British audience, but also to introduce his company to British society.

“The greatest thing for us is to meet people face-to-face. I want to introduce my team and the Palestinians to British society and speak about and discuss our artistic project; this is the best way if we want to reach people.

“But we are also there to perform theatre and bring back the siege because it was presented in the UK in a very bad way, in my opinion, through the news. And since we are artists involved in a social-political environment, we have the responsibility to present ourselves in a different way from the media.

“That is why it’s important to open the questions in the mind of the people when they ask: who are you? What do you think about this? What do you think about that?” An importance confirmed by those who would prefer minds were kept closed and have the play banned.

  • Correction: the article had referred to Juliano Mer-Khamis’ suspected murderer being Palestinian. Freedom Theatre have stated that in fact that as they have never been caught they do not know their nationality. The reference to the killer being Palestinian has been removed.

Private tenant given 70% rent-rise after twice beating landlord’s attempts to evict him

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA private tenant who twice beat his landlord’s attempts to evict him has been notified of a 70 per cent increase in rent this week in what he believes is a further attempt to force him out after he reported dangerous conditions to the council last year.

For the first time in nearly a year Michael James, who’s lived at Chapman House, a 19-flat block in Shadwell, for more than 25-years, began to feel secure in his home again after his solicitor informed him of a little known law that meant he was an assured tenant and could not be evicted.

However, in February Michael received formal notice from the landlord’s solicitor that his rent would be increased from £650 to £1,100 a month from April.

Mr James said he believes it’s a vindictive move to force him out through alternative means after the landlord twice failed to evict him in 2014 with a Section 21 (two-month notice to quit). He said it has brought back the desperate sense of insecurity and fear for the future he thought he’d put behind him.

He said: “It’s depressing that after failing to evict me on two occasions they are seeking to attack me again like this. The past year has been extremely stressful and my health has suffered as a result. Knowing they can’t evict me with a Section 21 they are resorting to other measures to get me out of the property, so yet again I’m living in limbo.

“I used to have an amenable relationship with the landlord, however, for the past seven years maintenance of the property has all but stopped while rents continued to rise, which is what led me to report the poor conditions first to the agent, and then when they were ignored, to the council.

“Despite all I’ve gone through and whatever happens to me now, my actions will have been justified when the council finally forces the landlord to bring the property up to some sort of livable standard.”

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The owners of the block, Lepex Holdings Ltd, are expected to carry out what could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of work to deal with illegal and unsafe conditions after the council’s environmental health team inspected the property.

When the council’s head of public health, Dr Somen Banerjee, visited the block in 2014 he expressed shock at what he saw, which included serious mould and damp, illegal electrics, serious fire hazards, poor security and a bathroom ceiling that had collapsed due to a leaking roof.

A spokesperson for Tower Hamlets Renters said: “Michael’s treatment over the last 12-months has been nothing less than disgraceful. The landlord should be thanking him for highlighting life-threatening and illegal conditions at the property. He’s possibly saved him hundreds of thousands of pounds had he been sued following an accident. But rather than take responsibility for their poor management, they have sought to punish Michael by first attempting to evict him and now by pricing him out.

“There couldn’t be a clearer example as to why central government must bring in longer and more secure tenancies, ban retaliatory evictions and limit rent increases, and Tower Hamlets Council must forge ahead with its plans to implement a landlord licensing scheme that could ban landlords such as Michael’s from operating in the borough as Newham is successfully doing.”

Why the landlord failed to evict Michael with a S21

The law that protected Michael was enacted in 1989 after statutory assured tenancies (lifelong contracts) were replaced with six-month contracts as standard. It required landlords to inform new tenants that they were on a shorthold tenancy and not an assured one. This was done in the form of a Section 20 signed by both parties.

Failure to administer a S20 meant the tenant was an assured tenant. Michael has no recollection of ever signing one while his landlord failed to present his solicitor with one after twice seeking a claim for possession through the courts. As long as he fails to produce one Michael is an assured tenant. The requirement to provide a S20 ended in 1997.

HA entrusted by tenants to manage homes kicks them out & sells them off

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Around 20 housing campaigners and local residents marched through Poplar today in protest over housing association Poplar Harca’s business strategy of evicting social tenants and replacing their homes with properties for private sale and ‘affordable’ rent, which of course we know is unaffordable to most.

Tower Hamlets Renters and Action East End organised the demo as Harca prepares to submit a planning application to refurbish and privatise Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower.

If permitted, around £20m will be spent on refurbishing the 1960s block before the majority of its 146 properties are sold off to bankers and investors with no chance of its original and intended residents to return.

Poplar Harca, which the tenants of Balfron Tower voted in to manage the block, claims it can’t afford to refurbish the block and rent properties at social rents. However, if full, Balfron brings in around £1.5m a year in rents, which would be enough to pay the necessary loan off over 20-years. And what has happened to all the rent Poplar Harca took since it began managing Balfron in 2007? According to residents it’s not gone on maintenance.

The wholesale transfer of hundreds of residents on low-incomes out of Balfron to other parts of the borough, London and the country in favour of people who can afford £500,000 to £1m mortgages is social cleansing by any standards.

We call on Poplar Harca to stop this unethical policy and focus on spending its income on properly maintaining its properties and using its surplus income to build homes for social let.

And it’s not just activists making these demands. The response from people we met today: outside Balfron, in Chrisp Street market and outside Poplar Harca’s offices, suggests people are extremely unhappy with the housing association despite it claiming to have 80% customer satisfaction.

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It seems there is a groundswell of anger towards Poplar Harca and its treatment of tenants, so no doubt today’s action was the first of many as housing campaigners and local residents unite to challenge Harca’s unethical policies.

A Tower Hamlets Renters spokesperson said: “People bang on about the architectural importance of Balfron Tower, but frankly its legacy will be more ironic than iconic. Goldfinger designed Balfron to house the East End’s working classes yet the housing association entrusted to manage the estate has kicked them out and selling their homes to bankers and investors.”

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Balfron Tower has 146 1, 2, 3 and 4-bed flats and maisonettes. From 2010 Poplar Harca began moving out existing tenants and paying DotDotDot to replace them with property guardians (to prevent squatters moving in), who pay a reduced rent but can evicted with a few weeks’ notice.

Poplar Harca also struck a deal with Bow Arts which also acts as a property guardian but aimed at artists who need a live/work space and in return for a reduced rent and some form of artistic contribution to the community.

Both of these deals meant Poplar Harca prematurely forced out Balfron’s original tenants while losing huge sums in rent yet it pleads poverty when it comes to refurbishing the block and allowing the original tenants to return.

Poplar Harca has a history of replacing socially rented properties for affordable rents and homes for private sale.

On the Aberfeldy Estate (page 1 & 9) it replaced 297 units (86 bought through Right-to-Buy and 211 socially let) with 170 at affordable rents (55-to-65% of market rates), 20 at intermediate rents (80% of market rates) and 986 properties for private sale.

On Phase 2 of the Leopold Estate (see page 3 – Estate Renewal) Poplar Harca demolished 152 residential units (17 privately owned through RTB and 135 socially let) and replaced them with 367 properties: 19 at social rents, 52 at affordable rents (50-to-65% of market rates), 36 for shared ownership and 256 for private sale.

Focus E15 Fundraver at Rhythm Factory, Friday, 23 Jan, 2015

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Some of London’s leading purveyors and promoters of repetitive dance music have joined forces to raise money for the Focus E15 campaign group that attracted international headlines last year as they pushed the farcical and unnecessary housing crisis back up the political agenda.

The all-night rave at Whitechapel’s Rhythm Factory will feature some of London’s best free party DJs playing techno, acid house, jungle, dub-step, rave and whatever else takes their fancy from 10pm to 6am with entrance a bargain £5.

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New Era tenants celebrate sale of estate to ethical landlord

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The New Era Estate in Hoxton that has been the focus of a high profile campaign to keep 90 low-income families in their homes, has been sold to an affordable housing provider.

The deal between Dolphin Square Foundation and former owners Westbrook Partners was sealed at 2pm today and confirmed by Hackney Council this afternoon.

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Healthy fast food initiative to tackle youth obesity

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A healthy fast food initiative aimed at getting young people to improve their diets has been launched in a bid to tackle obesity in low-income areas.

Four mobile fast food units selling a range of healthy burgers, chicken and wraps have set up near schools in four east and north London boroughs in the hope students will take to the food on offer.

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New Era residents march to Downing St to hand in 300k petition

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Residents from Hoxton’s New Era Estate marched to Downing Street yesterday to hand in a 300,000 signature petition calling on David Cameron to pressure new owners Westbrook Partners into keeping their rents affordable.

They had earlier rallied outside Westbrook’s offices in Mayfair joined by hundreds of supporters including comedian Russell Brand calling on UK chief Mark Donnor to meet tenants and “do the right thing”.

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