Curtain to Fall on Palestinian Theater

ONCE the Al Hambra was the biggest, best, and glitziest theater in the West Bank. Since 1953, when East Jerusalem was part of Jordan, the 700-seat theater has drawn the well-to-do to see theater and dance troups and, once, even a circus, in addition to the regular run of Arabic, Indian, and English films. King Hussein spoke here often. Jordan's Interior Ministry once called it ``the best theater in Jordan and the entire Middle East.''

``Now we're lucky to get a dozen people a day - no women, only men,'' says Mohammed, who collects tickets in a lobby draped with gaudy posters advertising the celluloid exploits of Rambo and half a dozen Arab counterparts.

On July 25, the 36-year-old landmark and a sister theater, the Al Quds, the last cinemas in Arab East Jerusalem, will close, victims of the changing mores of the Palestinian uprising and of Israeli efforts to crush it. After July 25, only one West Bank theater will remain in business.

``People feel like they just don't want to come here while their brothers are being killed on the street,'' says Saleh Malhi, who has run the Al Hambra's refreshment stand for 29 years.

Like restaurants, wedding halls, and other places of amusement, most of the cinemas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank closed down in the early weeks of intifadah, which began 19 months ago. The Al Hambra and the Al Quds managed to hang on, but only under the strict 9-a.m.-to-noon schedule prescribed for all businesses by the underground leadership of the uprising.

The beginning of the end for the Al Hambra was the advent of video cassette recorders.

But the coup de grace was administered by the Israeli authorities. Nearly every day, Israeli soldiers wait outside the theater to check IDs and harass the customers, hurting attendance, says Mohammed, who has worked at the Al Hambra for five years.

Far more serious have been hefty tax bills levied by Israel, Arabs say, to punish the rebellious Palestinians. Mohammed says the theater's property tax jumped from $10,000 last year to $30,000 this year, despite a drop-off in business.

``They're mad,'' he says. ``They're asking for something I don't have.''

Meanwhile, from a shelf in his tiny refreshment stand, Mr. Malhi plucks out his latest bill for business taxes - a whopping $31,000.

``In the past, you paid what you could and that was enough. A letter like this [demanding payment of all back taxes] is like a bullet that comes in my chest,'' says the former policeman. ``I've been here nearly 30 years and I've earned just enough to live on. Now I will have nothing.''

With or without such measures, say neighbors, the Al Hambra would have succumbed in an era of Palestinian self-denial. ``Right now, all that matters is the intifadah,'' says a nearby merchant. ``Next to that, movies don't matter much.''

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