Analysis: The Palestinian Authority’s War on Art

Instead of embracing cultural events that strive to enhance coexistence, such as an apolitical summer festival in Jerusalem, the Palestinians consider art a mortal threat to their ideology and values.

By: Bassam Tawil/The Gatestone Institute

Palestinian strong-arm tactics are at it again.

The latest victims are Palestinian artists who are bearing the brunt of a campaign of intimidation to force them to boycott an annual summer arts festival in Jerusalem under the pretext that the event promotes “normalization” with Israel. The artists have been warned that anyone who participates in the Mekudeshet Festival as part of the Jerusalem Season of Culture will be expelled from the General Union of Palestinian Artists.

The festival, which is taking place in Jerusalem between August 23 and September 15, tries to “take an alternative and more open look at reality” in the city, according to the Mekudeshet Festival website.

“We try to replace fixed, pre-determined ideas with a less judgmental and multifaceted approach to the exact same reality. We try to elevate our gaze, to dissolve boundaries, to generate empathy, and to open our hearts and minds. We try to remember, always, that Jerusalem conquers us, liberates us, and enables us to unite around a common love for the city.”

A Purely Cultural and Artistic Event

The festival is purely a cultural and artistic event for those who wish to express their love for Jerusalem. The organizers, who do not belong to any political party, are not seeking to make any statement regarding the status of Jerusalem:

“For us, Jerusalem is a state of consciousness. We are constantly trying to touch its inner soul and holiness, to grapple with its challenges and needs, and to heal its deep, gaping wound. All our artistic creations derive from Jerusalem.”

These warm statements by the organizers have clearly failed to impress the Palestinians, who have launched a vicious campaign against the festival and have issued threats against Palestinian participants. The campaign is yet another sign of the Palestinians’ growing extremism and rejection of any form of cooperation and coexistence with Israel.

‘Particularly Disturbing’ Message from the PA

What is particularly disturbing is that the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is backed and funded by the US and EU, is also playing an active role in the campaign against the festival and the Palestinian participants. It would be easier to understand if Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad were opposed to the festival, but the PA’s opposition sends the unambiguous message to Palestinians from their leaders in Ramallah: it is that Israel is unacceptable, plain and simple.

The Palestinian outrage over the festival and the participation of Palestinian artists exposes, from yet another angle, the depth of deception in PA President’s Abbas’s statement about educating Palestinians toward a culture of peace. Here is a festival that promotes nothing but culture and peace, and the PA, once again, is promoting precisely the opposite.

The Palestinian Ministry of Culture has concocted a ridiculous excuse to justify its opposition to the festival. The Ministry claims that the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which is organizing the festival, is not officially registered with the Palestinian Authority.

The ministry also claims that the event was not coordinated in advance with the PA, whose representatives learned about it through the media. Yet the real issue was in fact revealed by the same Ministry: “The ministry is opposed to any activity that is aimed at promoting normalization with the Israeli occupation,” according to a source in the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.

Opposition to Festival Led by Abbas’ PLO

The General Union of Palestinian Artists, which is a branch of the PLO, headed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas, is spearheading the campaign against the Mekudeshet Festival and the Palestinian participants. The group called on all Palestinian artists to boycott the festival under the pretext that it promotes “normalization” and “serves Israeli agendas.” Musa Hafez, Chairman of the General Union for Palestinian Artists, warned that any Palestinian who participates in the festival would be expelled from the union. He said that the punitive measure also applies to Arab citizens of Israel who take part in the festival.

Among the scare tactics used by the Palestinian community to “persuade” Palestinians from participating, was Palestinian websites publishing their names and urging them to boycott the festival.

An anti-Israel group, The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, has also joined the campaign of intimidation. One of the group’s leaders, Zeid Shuaibi, said that he contacted some of the Palestinian participants to persuade them to boycott the “normalization festival.” He complained that his group still has not received any reply from the Palestinian artists. “The festival is aimed at distorting the truth and creating the impression that Israelis and Palestinians live together in one city (Jerusalem),” Shuaibi argued. “This is an Israeli attempt to exploit Palestinian artists as a fig leaf to beautify Israel’s image before the world.”

How did the artists experience this barrage of phone calls and threatening messages from anti-Israeli activists to boycott the festival? “Persuasion” is the word Shuaibi uses to describe his push to keep the artists away from the festival. Such persuasion is pure intimidation — ask the artists: they’ll tell you.

‘Unpleasant’ Late-Night Phone Calls

One of the artists, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained: “It is very unpleasant when you receive a phone call late at night from these guys. It is scary when they tell you that you would be denounced as a traitor if you go to sing at a festival with Jews.” He said that the campaign of intimidation also affected some members of his family. “They have also been phoning and sending text messages to my parents and uncles and cousins asking them to put pressure on me to boycott the festival.”

Not surprisingly, Palestinians took to social media to campaign against Palestinian participation in the Jerusalem festival. On Twitter and Facebook, Palestinians condemned the festival, calling it an act of “normalization” with Israel. “Normalization is a Crime” is one of the mottos used by the Palestinian social media activists.

Worldwide, music and culture are used to promote coexistence and peace between peoples. Yet, the Palestinians seem to approach art differently. Instead of embracing cultural events that strive to narrow the gap between people, the Palestinians consider art a mortal threat to their ideology and values.

Palestinians regularly derail political meetings aimed at peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but this campaign, aimed at allowing both Israelis and Palestinians to express their love for Jerusalem, takes bigotry to a whole different level. If Palestinian and Israeli artists coming together in a festival is being labeled a crime and treacherous act by the Palestinian street and leadership, what is the hope that any Palestinian leader will ever be able to sign a peace agreement with Israel?

Bassam Tawil is a Muslim analyst based in Jerusalem.