In Jenin refugee camp, narrow alleys of unpaved gravel meander between cinderblock homes and concrete slabs, with rubbish collecting in heaps along the road.
This is the home of Zakariya Zubeidi, the 32-year-old former commander of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin. For years, he was one of Israel’s most wanted men, accused of organising shootings and suicide bombings.
Then, in July 2007, Israel announced it would include Mr Zubeidi in an amnesty. But nearly a year later — having devoted himself to a children’s theatre project ever since — he warns that he has not renounced violence for good.
“I’m tired. The activists paid the heaviest price of the conflict. My friends and family were killed. And what did we achieve? Nothing. I’ve put down my weapons for now to see if things improve, if Israel meets its side of the bargain and if the occupation ends. But I’m not hopeful. I’m not really optimistic. If I have to, I’m prepared to take up guns again.”
Mr Zubeidi sits in one of the chairs inside the theatre he has helped re-establish in his hometown. Soft-spoken, his face is disfigured by shrapnel from a bomb he mishandled five years ago.
“If by the end of this year a Palestinian state has not been created, there is going to be war here. Mark my words. It will be a war against the Palestinian Authority. Not against Israel or between Hamas or Fatah, but against the PA which hasn’t fulfilled any of the promises it made to the Palestinian people. Life here is getting worse — never mind better.”
For now at least, he has returned to the ammunition of his childhood and is working in Jenin’s Freedom Theatre, a throwback to the theatre group that he, his older brother and four friends grew up belonging to. Started by Israeli activist Arna Mer-Khamis, it aimed to encourage understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.
But Mr Zubeidi found himself in prison at the age of 14 for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Soon after his release, he was imprisoned again for four-and-a-half years for throwing Molotov cocktails. Of the six youngsters who were the mainstay of the theatre, four are today dead while Mr Zubeidi’s brother is serving a 16-year jail sentence for terrorist activities.
This is the only community theatre in the northern Palestinian territories. The theatre adjoins a computer centre and an arts and media library and offers theatre, music and dance classes, together with regular film screenings.
On the stage, children belt out their lines, taking themselves very seriously. For a moment they can escape into the luxury of a make-believe world.
“You can give children weapons, but what does it achieve? They don’t know how to express themselves,” says Mr Zubeidi. “Theatre is another way to give children something to live for. I use it myself as a way to express my ideas and thoughts — through it I can explain why I used to use weapons or why I once thought of blowing myself up but no longer do.”
“I’m trying to convey a message of our culture in Palestine,” says 16-year-old Kamal Awwad, who dropped out of school three years ago. “We are not just about resistance and oppression.
“The theatre shows me I can do something — I can dream, I can act, I can live. Life is not just weapons and guns. I have a future."