Artswatch Palestine: February-March 2017

‘Artswatch’ is a regular digest that monitors attacks on Palestinian cultural life. Such attacks are a constant and shocking part of  a long-term campaign that attempts to undermine Palestinian collective identity and resilience. The pattern of this systemic abuse is overlooked by the mainstream media,  yet is testimony to the fact that  ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘free cultural exchange’ are privileges that have never been extended to Palestinians by Israel. This fact demands an urgent response from international artists in particular.

[Photo: T Suárez. Palestine Philharmonie: Amandine Beyer demonstrating a phrase to (left to right) Lamar Elias, Carol Ibrahim, Gandhi Saad, and Lourdina Baboun. ]

raiding jenin

Rania Wasfi, program coordinator at The Freedom Theatre, whose home was turned over by the army.

The Jenin Freedom Theatre website reported on 27th March a raid by Israeli soldiers on the home of its co-ordinator, Rania Wasfi.

‘They stayed for about 45 minutes,’ said Wasfi, in a statement on the website, ‘turning the house upside down: mattresses, sheets, clothes, even the saucepans in the kitchen were torn down from the shelves, the fridge was searched, everything.

‘When they left, they apologised for disturbing us. I asked: “What about the mess you made?” They answered that an apology was all I would get.’

In the morning, Wasfi’s children were afraid to leave the house: maybe there were soldiers waiting.

In the week leading up to the raid on Rania Wasfi, Israeli occupation forces conducted at least 70 incursions into Palestinian communities in the West Bank. 58 civilians, including 8 children, were arrested, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights.

Raiding Aida

The Lajee Centre, at the Aida Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, is a cultural centre that works with Palestinian youth. It is funded, among other sources, by Celtic football supporters.

Lajee has reported new raids by Israeli forces.

On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, for the second time in three days, Israeli soldiers entered Lajee Centre. They demanded access to Lajee’s computers. When staff members refused, the soldiers confiscated two computers and ordered the Centre’s Director to report for interrogation the following day.

This was the latest in a line of military intrusions, some of which have been documented in Artswatch (October 2016).  In July last year, soldiers searched the Centre and detained the librarian and three other people in the library for several hours. Later the same month, they seized two young men assembling a new playground structure.  In September, they threw tear gas into the Centre while children were in it; and in December, they harassed football players and then beat and detained Lajee Media Unit Director Mohammad Al-Azza when he tried to come to their assistance.

Shutting down a Theatre

Earlier reports in Artswatch have documented the spread of ‘culture’ to Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank:  for instance, incited by the Ministry of Culture, Habima, Israel’s national theatre, has performed in Kiryat Arba and Ariel.

Expansion on the West Bank is accompanied by new restrictions on theatre within the state of Israel.  Rami Younis, wrote on 28th March in +972 about Culture Minister Miri Regev’s disclosure that she has cut off all funds to the Al-Midan theatre in Haifa – the only state-funded theatre in Israel that produces work in Arabic.

Younis explains the events leading up to Regev’s latest actions.

The Ministry froze the theatre’s budget in 2015, after it had planned to run a performance of ‘A Parallel Time’, based on the life of Walid Daka, a Palestinian prisoner convicted of aiding the killing and abduction of an Israeli soldier, Moshe Tamam.  Al-Midan petitioned Israel’s High Court – after which, Younis writes, ‘the Attorney General  pressured the Ministry to leave the theatre’s budget untouched’. The two sides came to a compromise: Regev would not touch Al-Midan’s budgets for 2016 and 2017, and the theatre would withdraw its petition. Regev went back on this deal, and since March 2016 has ceased funding the theatre.  Workers at the theatre are preparing to strike.

Controlling the film industry

Meanwhile, in a parallel development, Jessica Steinberg in The Times of Israel reports (29th March) that Israel’s Ministry of Culture is asking Israeli film funds to provide detailed information about the approval process for films, ‘in an apparent attempt to clamp down on those that portray Israel in a negative way’.  A portion of the funds’ budgets comes from government.

Among the films whose funding the Ministry is scrutinising is ‘Five Broken Cameras’ – the work by Emad Burnat which depicts villagers’ resistance to the encroachment of Israeli settlements on their land.

Ha’aretz reports that one of the film funds in question, the Rabinovich Foundation, now requires that film-makers who receive their funding must declare that they will not depict key features of Israeli society in a negative light. At the centre of the Foundation’s concerns is the representation of Israel’s Independence Day . Palestinians regard Independence Day as their catastrophe – the Nakba.  The Foundation’s requirement makes it impossible for a film that receives its support to represent what Israel’s founding has meant for Palestinians.

Putting poetry on trial

The Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, an Israeli citizen,  who is accused of writing poetry that amounted to “dangerous incitement” against the Israeli state, has been in custody or under house arrest for over 18 months now (see Artswatch June, July, November, December 2016).

Blogging on +972 on 26th March, Yoav Haifawi details the latest stages of Tatour’s prosecution.

On 19th March Tatour’s attorneys brought two expert witnesses to testify in her defence before the Nazareth Magistrates Court.

Professor Nissim Calderon described a long tradition of poets – particularly Jewish poets – who used harsh words to oppose oppression or injustice. The poets, Calderon said, were not prosecuted, even by oppressive regimes like the Tsar in Russia or the British Mandate in Palestine. Why had the Israeli state learned nothing from this experience?

Dr Yoni Mendel, a literary translator, showed in the course of a 5 hour testimony that the police’s translation had deliberately and systematically distorted the text to make it appear extremist and violent: Tatour had called on her people to endure suffering;  in the police translation, this became a call to inflict it.

The trial continues, with Tatour facing the possibility of an 8 year jail sentence. Tatour’s defence campaign has launched an appeal for funding, here.

Making Music

While Asmaa al-Ghoul charts for al-Monitor (9th March) the dire effects of austerity and conflict on the cultural resources available to Palestinians, Tom Suarez, writing for Mondoweiss, details the work of the emergent Palestine Philharmonie, an initiative that aims to create the infrastructure for a musical culture in Palestine, ‘not least by establishing Palestine’s first permanent  professional orchestra, based in Bethlehem’.

Suarez writes that ‘efforts to reclaim Palestine’s cultural identity and cultural life from the paralysis of displacement, subjugation, and occupation’ have been under way for years, with ‘myriad local initiatives’.  He has every hope that these will continue.


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