Highlighting Palestinian Culture, Despite Israeli Restrictions | Israelo-Palestinian conflict

Occupied East Jerusalem – For 29-year-old Palestinian cartoonist Azeez Azeez, the Yabous cultural festival in Jerusalem was an opportunity to present his work, for the first time, in an art exhibition.

Unlike his art, which is often political and painfully brutal, Azeez is a light and youthful character.

“Today, we don’t need to imagine much to produce an image that depicts the high contrast of the struggle on the pitch,” Azeez told Al Jazeera during the exhibit.

Showing his two hanging artworks of Palestinian children confronting the Israeli army, he said: “You can just look at the news and literally transfer it – as it is – and these are the results.

“They’re not radical – they’re very direct and clear,” Azeez added.

The Yabous Cultural Center held the 19th edition of its week-long cultural festival earlier this month, this year titled “Stand Up Jerusalem!” The event ran from September 16-21 and included an art exhibition, plays, music and dance performances, comedy and workshops.

Located on Az-Zahra Street, a five-minute walk from Jerusalem’s Old City, the center’s largest venue was packed to capacity every night, with around 2,000 to 2,500 people in total attending.

Rania Elias, the centre’s director, donned a colorful kaftan printed with Arabic calligraphy on the festival’s opening night.

“Joy is not an easy thing in Jerusalem,” Elias explained on stage, emphasizing “the importance of the relationship between culture and liberating thought.”

“The difficulties of staying, persevering and carrying on, in light of difficult political, financial and funding conditions, have become incapacitating.”

This is where Yabous comes in, continues Elias, with his work “to preserve national identity”.

“We see our cultural projects as a tool in the struggle against the ongoing cultural eradication that is being waged against our institutions and the Palestinian people,” she added.

Azeez Azeez, 29, standing next to the left of two of his artworks at the Yabous festival in occupied East Jerusalem [Eyad Tawil/Al Jazeera]

“Arise Jerusalem”

The audience cheered and cheered throughout the opening performance of locally revered singer and producer Dalal Abu Amneh, 39, from Nazareth, which is located in Israel but whose inhabitants are Palestinians.

Abu Amneh began with his own Palestinian songs, singing his love for his country, and ended with favorites from the wider Arab world.

Bassem Shraydeh, a 73-year-old chemistry professor at an-Najah University in Nablus, who attended the show with his family, was a fan of the show.

“Dalal Abu Amneh is well known; she is the pinnacle of singing and originality. She is much loved,” he told Al Jazeera after the event.

In the days following Abu Amneh’s concert, the festival, held since 1996, included performances by world-renowned Palestinian electronic music group 47Soul, a Palestinian folk dance group dabke, stand-up comedy, a play and an orchestra bringing together more than 80 musicians from all over historic Palestine.

But the cultural scene cannot escape the reality of the Israeli occupation.

In July 2020, Israeli forces attacked the Yabous Cultural Center, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and the Shafaq Cultural Network in occupied East Jerusalem, over allegations of “money laundering, terrorist financing and tax evasion”.

The offices of the three organizations were ransacked and their documents, electronic devices including laptops and phones were confiscated.

The directors, including Elias and her husband Suhail Khoury, who runs the Conservatory, were arrested at their homes and released 12 hours later.

“They [Israeli authorities] always target us on a personal level and as an institution,” Elias told Al Jazeera.

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The opening night featured Palestinian singer Dalal Abu Amneh of Nazareth [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Restricting the lives of Palestinians in Jerusalem

Israeli authorities have for decades restricted Palestinian civil society institutions in occupied East Jerusalem.

The eastern half of Jerusalem was militarily occupied by Israel in 1967 and illegally annexed. There are currently 350,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, including at least 220,000 Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements.

Some 86% of occupied East Jerusalem is under the direct control of the Israeli government and settlers. Local NGOs and rights groups have long pointed to a series of Israeli practices and policies in Jerusalem aimed at changing the demographic ratio in favor of Jews, a goal defined as “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” in recent municipal master plans.

Dozens of Palestinian institutions and hundreds of events since the early 2000s in occupied East Jerusalem have been arbitrarily ordered to close by Israeli authorities on the grounds of ‘ties to the Palestinian Authority‘ or ‘to Hamas’ , the group that administers the blockade of Gaza. Undress.

According to the Jerusalem-based Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights (CCPRJ), since 2001, Israeli authorities have temporarily or permanently closed at least 35 public institutions and Palestinian NGOs in occupied East Jerusalem.

In May 2017, authorities banned a lecture on Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Yabous Cultural Center. Israeli police and intelligence services arrived an hour before the scheduled start of the conference – which aimed to raise questions about Jordanian custody of the holy site – and ordered it closed, saying it had been “organized by the Hamas”.

In June 2021, Israeli police banned a popular market in the residential neighborhood of Beit Hanina in occupied East Jerusalem. The market was part of Palestine Economic Week, a local initiative of pop-up Palestinian bazaars to support local products.

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Rania Elias, director of the Yabous cultural center in occupied East Jerusalem [Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

“The institutions of Jerusalem are skeletons”

Amer Khalil, director of the Palestinian Al-Hakawati National Theater in Jerusalem, said he believed festivals like Yabous were essential.

“I think the cultural scene is one of the most important tools that remain at our disposal as Jerusalemites, to preserve the identity of Jerusalemites and Palestinians,” Khalil told Al Jazeera.

“The main objective of the occupation is to empty Jerusalem of Arabs, Palestinians. Culture is a weapon, it is a type of resistance, it increases awareness, it teaches people perseverance, it gives them the breath of patience,” the 58-year-old added.

He said that since its opening in 1984, the Al-Hakawati Theater had received hundreds of notices from the Israeli police ordering it to close for several days.

“They come, they put a notice of the theater being closed for three days for ‘security reasons’, which they suspect is the Palestinian Authority [PA] funding for a specific performance, or that the event includes people who have communications with the PA,” Khalil said.

Other obstacles, Elias said, include the imposition of politically conditional aid from foreign donor states on Palestinian institutions.

“The European Union has started to impose conditional aid to civil society in Palestine. We see this as a humiliation for the role of institutions and their struggle and work with society,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that Yabous refused conditional aid and, with additional pandemic-related issues of COVID-19, had financial difficulties. .

“When you condemn all political parties, and consider them as terrorist groups, what is this help you are giving us? Why? For humiliating our struggle?

“Jerusalem institutions are skeletons,” she continued, noting that her own team in Yabous had been reduced from 11 to four employees.

The geographic separation of Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank has also isolated Palestinians in the city.

“The borders are closed to us – when we try to get groups from the West Bank, we have a problem, when we want to bring in groups from outside, it’s no longer easy to bring in foreigners,” a- she explained.

“The checkpoints prevent us from connecting with the West Bank. Services, audiences, artists have become limited to Jerusalem alone, and this is killing the cultural movement, and killing the movement in Jerusalem as a whole.

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