UK taxpayer funds pro-BDS arts company founded by terrorist

The Freedom Theatre, set up by Zakaria Zubeidi who ran the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, received a British Council grant


JENIN, -: Zakaria Zubeidi, a Palestinian local leader of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, holds up his M-16 rifle and picture of Arafat 31 July 2004 in the northern West Bank city of Jenin, after members of the group had set ablaze the Governor's building overnight. Arafat had appointed as governor Qaddura Mussa, 50, Fatah's secretary-general for the Jenin district. The post had been vacant since the former governor, Haidar Ersheid, was forced to stand down a year ago following accusations of corruption. AFP PHOTO/Saif DAHLAH (Photo credit should read SAIF DAHLAH/AFP via Getty Images)

UK taxpayer cash is pouring into two arts companies that demand a boycott of Israel – including one founded by a terrorist who said he established his theatre troupe with “the butt of my machine gun”, the JC can reveal.

Funded by the Foreign Office via the British Council, The Freedom Theatre supports BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions). Based on the West Bank, it was created by Zakaria Zubeidi, who led al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.

Also receiving British Council cash is dance troupe Hawiyya, which recently took part in a protest against “apartheid” outside the Israeli Embassy in London. It was co-founded by Shahd Abusalama, a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University who described a Palestinian terrorist as a “beautiful fighter”.

The revelations come after the Government’s recent pledge in the Queen’s Speech to stop publicly funded bodies supporting BDS. Senior Tory MP Robert Halfon told the JC: “This is pretty shocking. Taxpayers’ money is being spent on promoting boycotts of Israel and one of these groups is linked to a terrorist. The Government must now deliver on what it promised over BDS in the Queen’s Speech.”

The Freedom Theatre was awarded a £74,976 British Council grant in March 2022.

Zubeidi ran the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades during the bloody second intifada from Jenin, the West Bank city where the theatre is based. He was granted an amnesty in a political deal in relation to crimes perpetrated during the 2000-2002 intifada, including a fatal Tel Aviv bombing.

Zubeidi was subsequently charged in an Israeli military court with further serious offences. They included several attempted murders and killing two people in shooting attacks on buses in 2018 and 2019.

He escaped last September with five others through a tunnel dug from inside Gilboa prison but was soon recaptured. His trial has not yet been concluded.

The Freedom Theatre uses Zubeidi’s image as its Facebook homepage profile picture, and its website features a lengthy account of his life, quoting him as saying: “I burst open the lock to the theatre with the butt of my machine gun. You can’t separate armed resistance from cultural resistance.”

It adds: “On the role of the cultural resistance fighter, Zakaria believes that it is to translate the armed, religious and political modes of resistance and to be the criticising force against all of them. Everything revolves around cultural resistance; it is impossible to understand the fight without cultural insights.”

The British Council also awarded grants to the Freedom Theatre that ran to tens of thousands of pounds in 2015 and January 2021.

Hawiyya dance troupe was co-founded by Ms Abusalama, lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. She described notorious terrorist Leila Khaled as a “beautiful fighter” after meeting her in 2020, saying she “became a symbol of the Palestinian revolution in her glory, hijacking airplanes and shaking the Zionist entity and the world”.

In an interview about Hawiyya, Ms Abusalama said she founded the troupe because Israel “suppressed” Palestinian dance and “harassed” its exponents. Hawiyya performed at an Amnesty International protest outside the Israeli embassy in London earlier this year protesting at so-called “apartheid”.

In March the British Council awarded Hawiyya £16,576, to fund a show that is currently touring Britain.

Social media posts highlighted by researchers from Gnasher Jew reveal the support of both companies for BDS.

A tweet from The Freedom Theatre issued on 16 May last year before it performed a show in Battersea, said: “We hope Battersea Arts will stand in solidarity with Palestinian artists and join the BDS movement.” A link to a BDS campaign page follows.

A few days later the Freedom Theatre tweeted its support for BDS movement founder Omar Barghouti, saying that he was “echoing the Palestinian appeal to the world for meaningful international solidarity in the form of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions #BDS”.

The Freedom Theatre is currently promoting a show called The Revolution’s Promise, with the support of hard-left campaign group Momentum. In a series of recent tweets to promote this, the show’s director, Zoe Lafferty, said earlier this month: “Join Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” and posted a logo reading “BDS, Justice and Equality.”

The Hawiyya dance company’s chief producer Jamila Bourghelaf tweeted on 21 May last year the famous photo of a child raising his hands at gunpoint in the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust, juxtaposed with a picture of an Israeli soldier pointing a weapon at a Palestinian child. She wrote “there is absolutely no difference between these 2 images & what they represent. Worst bit is that the outrage for the 1st has been INSTRUMENTALISED to justify the 2nd. How F***ED UP this is?!”

In July she tweeted that it was vital to “stop normalisation” of Israel adding “#BDS #Proud”.

The JC approached Hawiyya and The Freedom Theatre for comment.

A British Council spokeswoman told the JC: “Both these organisations were successful with grants awarded through a competitive open call.

“These funding decisions have been through vetting at the British Council and comply with UK Government policy.” The Freedom Theatre was “committed to using the arts as a catalyst for social change”, she said.

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