In Israel’s deliberate and systematic effort to sever the deep-rooted Palestinian bond with Jerusalem, cultural institutions that preserve Palestinian identity have been a prime target, writes Yara Hawari.
The first Palestinian music studio and mainstay of the arts scene, Sabreen officially closed its doors last month due to Israeli regime policies that stifle cultural institutions.
On the last day of July, Sabreen, the first Palestinian music studio, has closed its headquarters in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. Originally a music group, Sabreen expanded into a music development association in 1987.
Focusing on music and community projects, Sabreen has been an institutional home for many Palestinian artists. From recording albums to youth music projects, he has been a crucial player in the Palestinian art scene. Yet, after years of financial struggle and deliberate policies by the Israeli regime to stifle Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem, Sabreen will no longer be able to operate from her original home.
“The association is closed due to various debts, which affects many cultural institutions in Jerusalem. The cost of running in Jerusalem is incredibly high…and the problem is that funding rarely covers these basic running costs…Currently we have lost our headquarters and are now trying to keep the association going, but it will be difficult” , said Murad, one of the founders of the group and association, told me.
“In addition to these systemic policies that make daily life incredibly difficult for Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Israeli regime has also sought to disrupt Palestinian cultural and political life in the city.”
This is happening in the context of the Israeli regime constantly working to separate Jerusalem from the Palestinians and their identity and national consciousness since the Nakba in 1948. Nearly two decades later, the entire city was brought under the control of the Israeli regime in what is commonly known as the Six Day War of 1967.
Palestinians who remained in the city were granted “permanent resident” status rather than citizenship by the Israeli government, leaving them stateless. This allowed the Israeli regime to deny them all their rights, including the right to vote, while forcing them to pay crippling taxes and other municipal fees.
Urban planning has also been a key mechanism by which Israeli authorities erased Palestinians from Jerusalem, particularly in their explicit efforts to maintain a Jewish majority population in the city.
Stripped of statehood in the most traumatic way, Palestinians have preserved their right of return by building a vibrant and thriving national culture. Through literature, art, music, fashion and theater, the Palestinian dream lives on https://t.co/IoPeCfX4ic
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) June 2, 2022
This includes limiting Palestinians to certain neighborhoods, denying them building permits, demolishing their homes, and providing inadequate resources and services to Palestinian neighborhoods. The building of the separation wall in 2002 was also part of this concrete attempt to make life unbearable for Palestinians in the city.
In addition to these systemic policies that make everyday life incredibly difficult for Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Israeli regime has also sought to disrupt Palestinian cultural and political life in the city.
Shortly after the occupation of the eastern part of the city in 1967 and its subsequent annexation, Palestinian cultural and political activity was subjected to intense repression by the Israeli regime. The application of the Defense Emergency Regulations, first introduced by the British Mandate in 1945, allowed the Israeli regime to impose widespread censorship and repression. Books were banned and all words considered powerful, such as filastin (Palestine), sumud (firmness) and ‘awda (return), were omitted from programmes, books, radio broadcasts and plays.
Reflecting on the years following the 1967 occupation, Sliman Mansour, founder of the League of Palestinian Artists, noted that the Palestinians “lived in a kind of cultural ghetto, isolated from cultural developments. The movement was difficult. Many artists have been banned from travel. Artists were often arrested and their works confiscated […] It was an attempt to kill any creative and artistic spirit of the Palestinians.
Since then, the situation has not improved. Since 2000, the Israeli regime has closed more than 42 Palestinian institutions in the city under various pretexts, ranging from “illegal” political affiliation to unpaid bills.
For example, the Palestinian National Theatre, Al-Hakawati, established in Jerusalem in 1984, has consistently fought against censorship and threats of closure. She saw her activities stopped no less than 35 times since openingincluding in 2008 when the theater attempted to host a festival before Jerusalem was chosen as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2009.
“Today, these organizations remain under constant threat and pressure simply to exist as Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem”
In 2015, the theater issued a public appeal following threats from the Israel Law Enforcement and Collections Authority which not only froze the theater’s bank account, but also threatened to seize the building. The Israeli regime used the pretext that the theater had accumulated massive debts to the municipality, the electricity company and the national insurance agency.
In reality, payments to these various authorities are deliberately kept at an exorbitant level in order to make the living conditions of Palestinians in Jerusalem unsustainable. The theater continues to face an impending closure to this day.
Most recently, in July 2020, Israeli regime police raided and looted three Palestinian cultural organizations: the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the Yaboos Cultural Center, and the Shafaq Cultural Network. Their offices were ransacked, documents and files were confiscated, and computers, laptops and phones were confiscated.
The three directors – Suhail Khoury, Rania Elias and Daoud Ghoul – were arrested and taken from their homes, which were also searched. Khoury and Elias were held for one day in Israeli custody, while Ghoul spent two weeks incarcerated and interrogated in Moskobiye prison.
The initial accusation against the three cultural institutions in Jerusalem was “tax evasion and fraudbut it later became clear that they were also being held on false charges of funding terrorist organizations, a charge commonly leveled against Palestinian activists and civil society by the Israeli regime.
Today, these organizations remain under constant threat and pressure simply to exist as Palestinian cultural institutions in Jerusalem. Indeed, while Sabreen is the most recent example of this ongoing effort to destroy Palestinian Jerusalem, it will not be the last.
This article is based on a policy brief for Al Shabaka. Read it here.
Yara Hawari is the senior analyst for Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian political network.
Follow her on Twitter: @yarahawari
Do you have any questions or comments ? Email us at: [email protected]
The views expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or its staff.