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Meet The Palestinian Refugee Camp Theater Group That’s Touring The World

The Freedom Theatre, based in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank, is on its first trip to the U.K. this month.

Posted on May 21, 2015, at 9:48 a.m. ET

The Freedom Theatre, a Palestinian drama group from the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, is on a U.K. tour this month.

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Hassan Taha (left) and Faisal Abu Alheja rehearse at the Battersea Arts Centre in London on May 20.

The group, founded in 2006, runs a theater and an acting school in Jenin refugee camp. They've toured across the West Bank and Gaza, as well as the U.S. and European countries, and they're now in the U.K. for the first time.

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The cast rehearse a scene where they share a cigarette.

The Freedom Theatre uses plays to protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Its actors say the arts offer a rare chance for Palestinians to express their views without having to join a political party or armed group.

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Hassan Taha (right) and Rabee Hanani at the rehearsal.

"Every [party] has its own ideology but this — the art, the theater, the camera, the magazine — it gives us space for our own thoughts and ideas," Faisal Abu Alheja, an actor with the Freedom Theatre, told BuzzFeed News.

"The society in Palestine unfortunately is divided: Fatah, Hamas, al-Jihad al-Islami, this and that," 26-year-old Alheja said in an interview just before Wednesday night's performance at London's Battersea Arts Centre, listing out some of the local parties and movements.

Israel took control of areas including the West Bank, a chunk of territory that's home to 2.7 million Palestinians, in 1967 and has since built settlements and military checkpoints there. The settlements are considered illegal by most countries under international law.

But the Freedom Theatre has critics on many sides. Juliano Mers Khamis, its founder, was killed by an unknown gunman right near the theater in 2011. Separately, several of its members have been arrested by Israel’s authorities, Al Jazeera has reported.

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Milad Qunebe rests during the rehearsal.

The Freedom Theatre has taken on players on both sides of the world's most famous conflict. During his life, Khamis led productions that criticized not just Israeli occupation but also Palestinian political parties and conservative Muslim ideas, The Guardian reported in his 2011 obituary.

The Siege, the play that the group is performing on its U.K. tour, is at times didactic and sides heavily with its Palestinian protagonists. But it does raise questions about both sides' conduct in a 39-day siege in Bethlehem in 2002.

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The theater program for The Siege.

A more recent challenge for the group has been the sharp economic dip since 2011 in Palestinian territories, which has left every other person unemployed in some places, according to a World Bank report last year.

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Ahmad al-Rokh (left) and Faisal Abu Alheja relax during the rehearsal.

The dip means that increasingly the only jobs available are with the Palestinian National Authority, the Palestinians' semi-autonomous government, Alheja said. This shift makes it trickier for plays that criticize local politics to have their desired impact on audiences in the West Bank and Gaza.

"Today, as an artist, if I want to stand up in front of audience that is all connected to the Palestinian Authority in one way or another, that will make my message even more difficult," Alheja said. "They agree with me, they love what we do, but they will worry about taking action."

And yet the Freedom Theatre is unbowed by all such hurdles, says Zoe Lafferty, the British co-director of The Siege, who has been working with the group since 2010.

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Lafferty at the Battersea Arts Centre.

The group is still "finding its feet" since the loss of the hugely driven and charismatic Khamis, but the young actors he worked hard to train are now filling the leadership void, Rafferty told BuzzFeed News.

And as for the critics who say that the group's plays tell only one side of a two-sided conflict? "I think that often we get accused of giving very specific messages, but that's not necessarily our interest," Rafferty said. "Our role is to open up questions."

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