The Israeli authorities have prevented all events associated with al-Quds Arab Culture Capital 2009 celebration from occurring in what they consider to be Israeli sovereign territory. The harsh suppression of the cultural expression of Palestinians of which this action is indicative, reflects the very grim reality of the Israeli relationship to the Palestinian people, especially those with which they live in close proximity. The Arab Culture Capital festival, which is celebrated in a different Arab city each year, hosts artists, officials and tourists from all over the Arabic-speaking world. The Israeli refusal to allow these cultural events to take place in Jerusalem and within Israel’s borders sends a blunt and clear message, not only to Palestinians, but to all Arabs. The message is: We do not intend to acknowledge your rights or your presence here, ever.
This year’s al-Quds celebration was scheduled to include events in Jerusalem (al-Quds), Gaza, Nazareth, Ramallah and a refugee camp in Lebanon. According to the Israeli newspaper web site YNet, Interior Minister Avi Dichter ordered the police “to forcefully suppress” any attempt by the Palestinian Authority to stage any event in or around Jerusalem or the rest of Israel, which is connected to the festival. Israeli authorities view all external demonstrations of what they consider expressions of Arab sovereignty to be illegal within what they consider to be their borders.
On Saturday morning, March 21, 1000 Israeli police were deployed in the Old City of Jerusalem to stop all events associated with the festival. Most of the originally scheduled events had either been moved or cancelled as a result of the Israeli orders. However, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, eight different smaller events were closed down by the authorities during the day. In addition, there were 20 arrests of either organizers or participants.
Events associated with the festival which were shut down by police included a football game, a meeting of youths inside a club building and an attempt by schoolchildren carrying Palestinian flags to enter the area around the al-Aqsa mosque. Hundreds of young students accompanied by their teachers who attempted to stage some modest artistic events in the Old City of Jerusalem were prevented from doing so by police. The authorities also arrested two employees of al-Quds University who were distributing T-shirts commemorating the festival.
In Ras al-Amud, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, police shut down an event in which there were hundreds of participants, according to Ma’ariv. In a separate incident, a ceremonial torch which was brought from Damascus the site of last year’s festival was confiscated by police. In addition to the closings in and around Jerusalem, a conference associated with the Al-Quds Capital of Arab Culture celebration which was scheduled in the Palestinian-Israeli city of Nazareth, was prohibited by police order.
The official opening event, which was supposed to take place in East Jerusalem, was relocated to Bethlehem, where on Saturday evening Palestinian officials appeared live and via a television hook-up which was broadcast, apparently illegally, from East Jerusalem. President Mahmoud Abbas was present and addressed those gathered in Bethlehem for the opening ceremony. The International Middle East Media Center web site reported Saturday that Hamas had refused to host the scheduled events associated with the festival in Gaza.
Member of the Israeli Parliament Haim Oron, in remarks pointedly critical of his government, said, “Israel must encourage cultural pluralism both Israeli and Palestinian.” He added that “East Jerusalem is the cultural capital of the Palestinians and that does not constitute any threat to Israel,… Jerusalem is the cultural capital of the Israel and also that of Palestine.”
In relation to the horrors of the Gaza War and the recent revelations about the conduct of the Israeli army in that war, all this may seem insignificant. But it is hard to envision a peace between Israelis and Palestinians when 1000 Israel police are being deployed to grab flags out of the hands of children and stop teenagers from playing football in a event organized by the Palestinian Authority.