In Jenin, Seven Shattered Dreams
As part of the program, Mer Khamis and her son, Juliano, a rising star in Israeli theater, designed and outfitted a stage, sound system and rehearsal rooms for a modern theater in the heart of the Jenin refugee camp. Delegations of Israeli officials and journalists and international aid groups walked the rutted lanes of the camp to attend the plays and visit the classrooms.
"You were nobody, then you were famous," said Mahmoud Kaneri. "Everybody knew you. We were the center of attention. We were favored at school. We were something special in the eyes of everybody."
The project collapsed soon after Arna Mer Khamis died of cancer in 1995. The boys of the stage once again became like hundreds of other youths in the camp -- no longer set apart in the eyes of their neighbors and teachers.
After a year of high school, Mahmoud Kaneri joined his family's construction business. Yousef Swatat finished high school, then became a homicide investigator for the newly created Palestinian Authority. Alaa Sabagh dropped out of school, worked sporadically in his father's refrigerator repair shop and, according to his father, stole cars for extra cash on the side. The others found work as laborers.
The young men began mocking their own dreams, joking sarcastically about what they had not become.
"If you were an actor now, you would be wearing a three-piece suit with a tie," Mahmoud Kaneri remembers needling Swatat one day as he stopped by for a visit wearing his Palestinian police uniform. "Everybody would respect you."
At the same time, the hopes stirred by the Oslo peace agreement collapsed into disappointment throughout the Palestinian territories. Mounting frustration gave birth to the current intifada in September 2000. Over the months, Israeli troops pushed deeper into the refugee camp and adjacent neighborhoods of the city of Jenin as the violence between Palestinians and Israelis escalated. Even so, the Palestinians carrying out suicide bombings in cafes and buses in Israeli cities seemed remote from the group of friends who continued to meet after work for coffee and chatter in the Jenin refugee camp.
On Oct. 18, 2001, an Israeli tank shell slammed into the schoolyard near Swatat's police station. He raced to the scene and found a 9-year-old girl hemorrhaging from the shrapnel that had torn apart her flesh. According to accounts from his family and friends, Swatat gathered the child in his arms, but she died before he could get her to a hospital.
"The girl changed his life," recalled Kaneri, who said Swatat talked obsessively about her death.
Swatat's father, Hamad Abu Swatat, 59, a retired school janitor, said his son's "conduct changed dramatically -- for the better, not the worse. At the police force, he was always fighting with his supervisors. He stopped that. I felt good when I saw him becoming a good person. He even started praying."
But for the boy who had been the biggest comedian and had the loudest laugh in the theater group, watching the life seep out of an innocent schoolgirl seemed to crystallize his own despair over the lost dreams of his childhood, the reality of a job that paid little, bosses he loathed and a war that was sapping Palestinians of hope.
"Nothing is more dangerous than to kill a dream," said Swatat's mother, Sukina, who keeps a copy of the script from "The Little Oil Lamp" with Yousef's lines.
Ten days after the girl's death, two Palestinians in a sport-utility vehicle opened fire with automatic rifles on a bus stop at a busy intersection in Hadera, an Israeli city 26 miles west of Jenin. The assailants killed four Israelis and wounded 40 before Israeli policemen gunned them down. One of the gunmen was Swatat.
Swatat's closest friend from the theater troupe, Ashraf Haija, rushed to Mahmoud Kaneri's house.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company