Speaking power to truth in Gaza and the West Bank

On the gagging of progressive Palestinian voices

This post was co-written with Daniel Campos Putterman, founder of No Borders Israel, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting xenophobia and religious intolerance through music, and to opposing violations of freedom of music and artistic speech everywhere.  

I thought poetry could change everything… but now I think that poetry changes only the poet.


 — Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

Artists move us beyond dogmas. Think of the role of music in the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Think of the impact that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or “The Diary of Anne Frank” had on public consciousness. Art is the vanguard of progress.

The Middle East is no exception. Artists were pioneers of the Israeli peace camp. They nudged a majority of Israel beyond traditional fears and founding mythologies to see people where they once saw only a threat, and the Oslo peace process was in no small way a result of their efforts. Yitzhak Rabin held a copy of “A Song for Peace” in his pocket on the day he was shot. Authors like Amos Oz and A. B. Yehoshua are still incessantly pushing for Israel to compromise.

On the Palestinian side, progressive artistic voices have been much more hesitant (music and art have actually celebrated violence). And yet, Mahmoud Darwish, the most prominent Palestinian poet, was resolute after the crushing Arab reversal of 1967 that brought Israel to the West Bank and Gaza when he said: “I will continue to humanize even the enemy.” In an age of ubiquitous demonization, it is precisely this humanization of the enemy that is needed for progress to happen.

But today, Palestinian governments – both Fatah of the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – are systematically crushing progressive and liberal artistic voices and therefore making peace, or even coexistence, less likely. A few telling examples:

May 2012, Gaza – Literary festival is shut down for being critical of Hamas: Armed Hamas men violently broke up a Palestinian literature festival because the Hamas government had been criticized in some of the lectures.

January 2012, Gaza – “Palestinian Idol” is banned for being secular: Hamas banned the popular TV contest for being “indecent.” Hamas spokesmen said that the popular show, which for years has showcased young secular and religious performers, “has harmed (our) culture and traditions.”

December 2011, Ramallah – Singer is forced to quit mid-show for song critical of Fatah government: Popular Palestinian musician Basel Zayed was forced under threat of violence to stop his New Year’s Eve concert mid-song. The reason: Zayed’s song was critical of the Palestinian Authority. Ironically, organizers protested that the concert had “a lofty goal, namely anti-normalization through art, one of the most dangerous types of normalization” (translation).

December, 2011, Ramallah – Popular Arab singer is prevented from performing because he is also Israeli: A popular Israeli Arab musician was prevented from performing at a New Year’s Eve party. The Palestinians authorities were angered by the fact that the singer was presented as an Israeli and that some of his songs were in Hebrew. Palestinian Authority policemen raided the hall and ordered the appearance canceled.

Oct 2011, Gaza – First Gaza Hip Hop party is forcefully dispersed; cooperation with Israeli peace activists is rejected for fear of arrest: Hamas forces broke up rapper Mothafar Assar’s gig at Gaza’s first hip hop party and confiscated video cameras. Assar’s show was considered at odds with Hamas’s brand of Islam.

Assar was also compelled to reject an offer by Israeli NGO Peace Now to record a track with an Israeli rapper to promote coexistence. “It could have been a positive thing, but I would have been viewed as a collaborator. I would have been arrested the next day,” Assar said.

Summer 2011, Gaza – Palestinian films are banned or censored for showing women flirting: Hamas’s Culture Ministry banned the Palestinian film “Masho Matook” which depicts Israeli troops interacting with soccer-playing Palestinian children. Hamas cited a scene where Israeli soldiers interact with a Palestinian woman with uncovered hair. “She was leaning and laughing, looking at the Israeli soldiers, and that was not appropriate. Palestinian women would not do that.”

A film festival hosted by the Gaza Women’s Affairs Center was subjected by Hamas to the forced removal of scenes of women flirting and “any work that violates traditional values because we want to preserve the heritage of the community.”

December 2010, Gaza – Last liberal youth center is shut down by Hamas for teaching music and dancing: Hamas shut down the last liberal youth organization in Gaza, accusing it of “ethical corruption, encouraging non-veiling, mixing of the sexes, and teaching music and dancing.” The closure means the end of “a refuge for the young and pro-democratic [who value] individual liberties and human rights.” Police also arrested around 20 young men and physically assaulted a woman who protested the decision, and confiscated reporters’ cameras.

Oct 31 2010, Qalqilya – Palestinian poet and blogger is arrested for atheistic writing: Waleed Al-Husseini was arrested by Fatah security forces for the crime of expressing his atheistic beliefs online. Al-Husseini had posted satirical poems in Quranic style and refuted religious arguments (coercion of religion by the Fatah government of the West bank is increasingly prevalent).

July 2010, Ramallah – “Boney M.” prevented from singing hit song inspired by Bible because it tells of Israelites: The legendary disco band was prevented from singing their psalm-inspired hit “By the Rivers of Babylon” because the ancient lyrics express a Jewish yearning to return to the Holy Land from exile in Babylon. (This recalls Egypt’s ban of an audio cassette for Christian children because it featured a song based on the biblical story of David and Goliath, which was deemed pro-Israel.)

October 2009, Gaza – Uniformed gunmen assault “atheist” singer: Gunmen in uniform abducted Salah Al-Qeshawi, his son and his band after a wedding reception. The armed men shouted “atheist” while beating the musicians and warned the young boy “don’t ever sing, singing is forbidden.” The men stole Salah’s phone and 600 shekels.

October 2009, Gaza – Extremist groups assault and kidnap singer: Five days later, gunmen beat Palestinian singer Khalid Faraj with a rifle, put him in a black bag and sped away. A source close to the singer said that he had been the target of many attempts to silence him by “unidentified extremist parties.”

April 2009, Jenin – Youth Orchestra disbanded for performing for elderly Holocaust survivors: Palestinian authorities disbanded a local youth orchestra because the students had played for Holocaust survivors in Israel, explaining that such a concert “served enemy interests.” The Israeli-Arab conductor of the orchestra was banned from Jenin.

Far too little has been written about this. Palestinian progressives deserve the freedom to express themselves politically and artistically without fear of violent repercussion. The Palestinians need to hear their voices. And liberals should support them. Ultimately, it is not only Israel but Palestinian society as a whole that will suffer from the subjugation of art to illiberal politics.

About the Author
Philippe Assouline is a lawyer and PhD candidate in International Relations and Political science. His research is on the Middle East, and investigating whether positive communication can foster peace between Israelis and Arabs. Philippe believes that dehumanizing propaganda, like BDS, fuels hatred and war. Accordingly, he has written posts criticizing BDS and profiling dissidents and Arab peace activists, to break barriers between Jews and Arabs.