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Former West Bank militant stronghold gets cinema

A grieving Palestinian father's decision to donate his 12-year-old son's organs to Jewish and Arab children has brought an unexpected blessing to this former militant stronghold — a new state-of-the-art cinema.
Image: 'Cinema Jenin'  restored and reopened 23 years after first intifada
Palestinian policemen stand guard while Palestinians wait to enter to 'Cinema Jenin' during its opening and the start of a three day Film Festival in the West Bank city of Jenin.Alaa Badarneh / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

A grieving Palestinian father's decision to donate his 12-year-old son's organs to Jewish and Arab children has brought an unexpected blessing to this former militant stronghold — a new state-of-the-art cinema.

Five years after Ismail Khatib's son Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers who mistook his toy gun for a real weapon, a movie theater opened in Jenin on Thursday, a project conceived by a German filmmaker who made a documentary about the Khatibs.

During work on "Heart of Jenin," the story of the donation of Ahmed's organs, filmmaker Marcus Vetter spotted the local movie house, closed in the late 1980s, and decided to refurbish it.

Two years later, "Cinema Jenin" is back, bigger and better.

It was built by dozens of Palestinian and foreign volunteers and funded by about $650,000, most from the German and Palestinian governments and Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters. The complex includes a 350-seat movie house, an outdoor cinema in the adjacent garden, a cafe, a guest house, a film library and a dubbing studio.

Waters sent a video greeting for the opening while human rights activist Bianca Jagger was in town to attend. Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad cut the ribbon to open the cinema.

Jagger, the ex-wife of Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger, said she visited Jenin in 2002, at the height of Israeli-Palestinian violence and was "shocked" by the destruction at the time.

"It is for me a pleasure to see that there's now reason for hope, for a future for Palestinians here," Jagger said at a press conference ahead of the opening.

"Heart of Jenin," which won the 2010 German Film Prize for best documentary and has been nominated for an Emmy, was the first film shown in the cinema on Thursday.

Ismail Khatib, 46, said the local showing of the movie commemorating his son is an emotional occasion. "It shows that Ahmed is still living among the children, and that our sacrifice has not gone in vain," said Khatib, who has five surviving children.

Movie houses are rare in the West Bank, and the cinema marks another milestone in the transformation of Jenin from a hub for Palestinian gunmen to a bustling town of 40,000 with a growing economy.

Unemployment remains high at 27 percent, but has plunged from some 45 percent last year after Israel opened a crossing that allows Israeli Arabs to come shop in Jenin, said Nasser Atyani, director of the Jenin Chamber of Commerce.

Jenin was one of the first West Bank towns to bounce back from the devastation of the second Palestinian uprising, which erupted in 2000 and prompted Israel to keep much of the West Bank under lockdown to prevent suicide bombings and shooting attacks.

During the uprising, militants in Jenin and the nearby refugee camp of the same name frequently clashed with Israeli troops, including a weeklong 2002 battle that left 53 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers dead. In recent years, Palestinian security forces gradually got gunmen off the streets, encouraging businesses to reopen, including a small shopping mall.

A modest recovery has taken place across the West Bank, but economists warn that potential for growth is limited because Israel continues to restrict trade and many Israeli military checkpoints that hobble the movement of people and goods remain in place.

A ticket at the Jenin cinema will cost 10 shekels ($2.60), the price of half a pack of cigarettes, and organizers say separate seating for men and women is available, if requested, to reflect local traditions. Fakhri Hamad, who will operate the cinema, said he will try to show quality films as well as audience requests for popular entertainment. He also said some Israeli films would be shown, with an emphasis on those focusing on Palestinians.

Munir Gharbiyeh, 23, a university student from Jenin, said he's never been to a movie house before. "We have lots of spare time in Jenin," he said. "We always hear about new movies. It would be great for me to see the new movies here in Jenin."

Not everyone welcomes the cinema. The student council of the Arab American University of Jenin and three other groups said in a statement they are concerned the cinema, by screening Israeli films, could become a vehicle for normalization with Israel, something they oppose as long as the West Bank remains under Israeli occupation.

The statement called for Palestinian government oversight over the cinema and other cultural institutions.

Vetter hopes to expand the project. Next year, he plans to open a film school in Jenin and launch the West Bank's first international film festival. Vetter's latest documentary, about rebuilding the Jenin cinema, would likely open the festival, he said.


Associated Press writers Dalia Nammari and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.