The clowns stopped juggling when the dubstep blaring from nearby speakers switched to the sound of jet engines. They climbed down the pile of jagged concrete toward the throng of kids watching excitedly as recorded explosions boomed from the speakers. One of the clowns fell limp on the rubble.
The mournful Arabian flute of Yasser Farouk’s “Sad Ney” wafted from the sound system. Behind the children a row of men, mostly community leaders and local officials from Gaza City, sat in white plastic chairs facing the ruins of the Said al-Mishal Foundation for Culture and Science. The performance was a remembrance, staged on a site of devastation: Israeli warplanes had targeted and destroyed the building on Aug. 9, 2018, in response to a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip that landed near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba 30 miles away. Hamas and the Israeli military had traded hundreds of rockets and airstrikes in the preceding days, in the most severe escalation of hostilities since 2014.
The cultural center’s five stories had housed one of Gaza’s last remaining large theatre spaces, according to Ali Abu Yaseen, a director and acting coach who ran his school out of the building. Yaseen helped found ASHTAR Theatre, the group that produced The Gaza Monologues in 2010. It was a year after the Israel Defense Forces launched a ground assault into the Strip that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The play featured personal stories of young people describing life in the besieged coastal enclave. It was translated into 14 languages and performed in 36 countries.
“This building was the beautiful soul of Gaza,” Yaseen said. “Gaza is full of sadness.” He was at his home, a few minutes’ walk away, when the center was hit. His son Amjad, 26, was walking up the building’s front steps when the first missile hit. It was a small piece of ordnance the Israeli military uses for “roof knocking,” a tactic meant to warn civilians inside that the building is about to be bombed. Amjad ran to a safe distance and turned to look at the center—his second home, he said. He grew up there, starting acting at 12. He prayed that there wouldn’t be more missiles.
There were. Several more warning shots hit the roof, then a succession of large missiles slammed into the building’s base. A dust cloud billowed out and up and the center collapsed into it.
“My mind stopped,” Amjad said. “I saw the building falling, and I just started crying. Everything—every friendship, every love, every memory was there.”
His father rushed to the site. All he saw was a huge black cloud. He walked into it. He strained to see through the smoke and dust, and gradually realized the building was completely destroyed.
“At this moment I remembered everything,” Yaseen said. Memories flashed through his mind: of being onstage, of his students performing, of audiences clapping, of all his stage decorations and costumes, now buried in the ruins. There were set materials for six plays the group was to perform. Yaseen collapsed onto the ground and cried.
A play had been scheduled for that day, a 15-minute performance to be performed by a group of teen girls for employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN’s aid organization for Palestinian refugees. An UNRWA representative called Yaseen that morning and asked him to cancel the play because of the continued fighting. It would have been the young women’s first time acting in front of an audience.
Heba Daoud, 23, is one of ASHTAR Theatre’s veteran female students. She got involved at 16 when she performed in The Gaza Monologues. She was at home, a five-minute drive from the center, when she heard the explosions. She heard on the radio that the building was destroyed but didn’t believe it. Then her father told her.
“I told him, ‘No, Daddy. No,” Daoud said. But then she saw a video of the collapse posted to social media. She cried for hours, she said. She watched the video again and again in disbelief. Her family looked on in quiet sympathy. They knew how important the space was to her, she said. They had supported her acting from the beginning, when such public behavior by girls was unheard of in Gaza. Daoud is the only one still acting of the two dozen girls she started with. To her, she said, al-Mishal center was “not just a building.”
As the rubble smoldered, Daoud and her friends called each other to cry together and reflect on their shared memories of the building that had sheltered a support network that nourished and healed them through waves of trauma and grief. They met and called each other for days afterward, like a nervous system suddenly deprived of its body.
Yaseen fielded calls from former students, some living and acting abroad. A young man in Morocco called to reminisce about the time Yaseen caught him eating under a stairwell during Ramadan, breaking the fast. He is proud to tell people he was trained in Gaza, he said.
Sitting in his living room three days after the attack, Yaseen closed his eyes and ran his hand over his face. His son, Amjad, looked at the floor. “Until this moment I can’t understand why,” Amjad said. “There is no reason to hit this place. Nothing makes sense.”
Days before the strike, more than 200 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israeli territory, according to the Israeli military. Thirty percent were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and most of the rest landed in open areas, but 23 Israelis were hospitalized for injuries from rockets, Israeli media reported. It was the first time rocket warning sirens had sounded in the communities around Gaza since the 2014 war.
Israel responded with airstrikes on 150 targets inside Gaza on Aug. 8. Gazans listened to bomb blasts and felt their houses shake through the night. On Aug. 9 a rocket fired from Gaza landed in an open field near Beersheba, one of the largest cities in Israel. Ceasefire negotiations brokered by Egypt were underway, and Hamas denied firing the rocket, claiming that a more extreme Salafist group was responsible. But later that day, the Israeli military made its rebuttal.
The stated reason for the strike against the al-Mishal site was that the building was being used by Hamas’s interior security forces, which Israel described as “the operational arm of the political leadership of the Hamas terror group.” The military said it chose the building to demonstrate the reach of its intelligence capabilities and “so residents feel the price of the escalation and demand explanations from Hamas.”
Some Israeli media noted that this represented a departure from the military’s usual narrative about its airstrikes in Gaza—that they target military objectives that pose a security threat to Israelis. Hamas and IDF justifications for their trading of unguided rockets and targeted airstrikes, respectively, are part and parcel of the rounds of hostilities that have sent Israelis running for bomb shelters and left Gazans cowering and vulnerable in their homes since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Ordnance is used to make statements in a tit-for-tat game of retaliation that only negotiated ceasefires can resolve.
Hamas denied that any of its members used the al-Mishal center for any purpose, stating, “Israel’s targeting cultural centers, such as the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center, is a wild action that belongs to eras in which culture was fought against with fire and gunpowder.” For his part, Yaseen said he knew every inch of the building and that none of it was used by anyone from Hamas. The group didn’t interfere with the theatre, though they weren’t entirely accepting of its mission. Yaseen once directed an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that substituted the rivalry between Hamas and Fatah for that of the Montagues and Capulets. Hamas officials applauded the criticisms of Fatah but weren’t happy about those directed at themselves, Yaseen said with a chuckle.
The center was used by local artists of all stripes—musicians, painters, actors—and also served summer youth camps, he said. His theatre students exported their craft as psychological care for the community after the 2014 war, a uniquely deadly chapter in the decades-long conflict that resulted in the deaths of 2,251 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, according to the UN. Hundreds were children. Entire city blocks were leveled by Israeli artillery and airstrikes, as were key infrastructure sites, like the single sewage treatment facility. Sixty-seven Israeli soldiers and six civilians in Israel were killed during the 50 days of fighting.
“A lot of children here, after the war, they didn’t speak,” Yaseen said. “They lost the ability to talk because they were afraid.”
That’s when ASHTAR students, funded by a Christian NGO, stepped in, visiting schools throughout Gaza for four months and conducting psychodrama workshops for around 5,000 children. Yaseen said these succeeded in helping many to express themselves again.
The theatre itself was a special place for Gazans—one of the only large spaces around where they could dress up and sit together and feel the collective emotion elicited by performers who brought their realities to life onstage. It was also a venue for those performers to reflect on their experiences, to create and express their perspectives.
Yaseen doesn’t believe the theatre was merely collateral damage. To target such a place, he said, is to target the soul of the community. “It isn’t an aggression against the building,” he said. “It is an aggression against the most beautiful people in the country, in this area. They don’t want to see the beautiful side of Gaza. They want us to be like Tora Bora or Afghanistan? It is not logic.”
As an artist, he said, he could never wish destruction on an Israeli theatre. He wondered, how could a society that professes to love democracy and peace destroy his? “They are proud of their artists, but they are killing the artists of the other nation?” Yaseen asked rhetorically. He itemized a few past attacks on Palestinian artists: Mossad’s assassination of novelist Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut in 1972 in retaliation for a massacre at an airport in Israel (Kanafani was spokesman for a Palestinian group alleged to have organized the attack), and the shooting death of political cartoonist Naji al-Ali in London in 1987. His killers were never identified, and British police reopened their investigation into his murder in 2017.
Daoud also said she saw the building’s targeting and destruction as further proof of the significance of what went on there. She had been drawn to theatre because it gave her a voice, and through that voice an ability to serve Gaza and the Palestinian people. She had seen how British audiences, for instance, reacted to The Gaza Monologues—that it communicated her community’s situation to them.
Though the girls she started acting with had left, more had come in their place. Young girls told her they wanted to be like her. Ten years ago nobody could have imagined that girls and women in Gaza could be actors at all, she said. Now half of ASHTAR Theatre’s students are.
Some young women she knows fear sexual harassment in the male-dominated acting scene, or face pressure from their families who fear the same, or scrutiny from their conservative neighbors and Hamas. But Yaseen is like a father to her, she said, and makes her feel safe. And in any case, acting has instilled in her the confidence to stand up for herself should she face any mistreatment. She can’t live without theatre, she said. She made that clear to the man who asked to marry her last year, and he said he supported her. “This is why I accept him, actually,” she said, smiling and pregnant.
She said she could see no other reason to target the center, in short, than that the Israeli military recognized its unique power.
A day after the clowns reenacted an airstrike on the site of the one that destroyed their cultural center, artists brought their paintings and drawings and propped them up on the rubble. In the days after the strike, musicians had brought their instruments and performed impromptu concerts. All who had used the center for their art displayed it on its ruins.
Yaseen would do a solo show on it, he said. But he would need funding for a proper set. He didn’t want to say how much—a distinguished director shouldn’t need to ask for money. In time, he vowed, they would rebuild.
Daoud echoed Yaseen’s resolve. “We will rebuild it. They think that they destroyed the building. They will stop us?” she said. “No. We will never stop. We can act in the street. We can act on the sand. On the stone of Mishal, we will act there. We will never stop. We will continue. The world must hear our story.”
Micah Danney is a freelance writer based in New York City.