Select Committee on International Development Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by The Palestinian Network of Art Centers

"You have nuclear warheads, we have poetry . . " Mahmoud Darwish

On the psychological side two of the most important phenomena of culture are, firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils . . . Meanwhile we may rest on the assurance that whatever makes for cultural development is working also against war. —Excerpt from Sigmund Freud's letter to Albert Einstein (1932)


  1.  Endorse Palestinian cultural rights and maintain their integration into all aspects of short and long-term socio-political efforts.

  2.  Ensure that the assistance for projects focusing on cultural development, exchange and preservation are prioritised within future development cooperation strategies.

  3.  Consider the investment in cultural programming as a most appropriate form of sustainable development aid at this juncture, with the understanding that increased cultural engagement creates a more tolerant, self-confident individual and an open society. It also decreases societal vulnerability and provides individuals with outlets for creativity, entertainment and positive models for behaviour.

  4.  Emphasise the incorporation of cultural and artistic activities when funding of educational interventions in the West Bank and Gaza. Technical training, scholarships, international exchange opportunities, field trips for young students and the mainstreaming of cultural curricula into primary and secondary education are among some concrete examples.

  5.  Underscore the appropriate spread of cultural activity to all parts of the West Bank and Gaza with special emphasis on isolated geographical areas and provide the necessary political pressure to ensure access and mobility.

  6.  Support the development of a national Palestinian cultural strategy, with the full participation of civil society.

Point 1: The Effectiveness of aid from the UK and EU sources on Palestinian poverty levels, how it is targeted and what could be done to prevent it from being wasted or destroyed

  While present UK and EU aid strategies of supporting poverty alleviation, infrastructure, and a multitude of humanitarian interventions are proving significant to the endurance of Palestinian society, they remain, to varying degrees, lacking in focus on the individual's mental and spiritual well-being, without which eradicating poverty cannot be achieved. Investing in human development is the only guarantee for the sustainability and long-term impact of aid strategies. Cultural development, in particular, will contribute to the emergence of a healthier, more open and more tolerant society.

  Real development will not take place in Palestine while military occupation is controlling the everyday life of every citizen. Therefore, not only are appropriate aid strategies paramount contributors to the development of civil society in Palestine, but also equally important is the end to the political conflict. The significant power public opinion holds over political decisions, is witnessed globally and is an undisputed fact. Nonetheless, the West continues to perceive the Palestinians as aggressors rather than dignified peaceful human beings seeking an end to an injustice that has haunted and controlled their lives for decades. The misrepresentation of the Palestinian cause and the distortion of the image of the Palestinian individual, as wrongfully portrayed by the Western media, urges Palestinians to continue using their cultural and artistic expression as a means of setting the record straight. Palestinians believe that their accurate portrayal in the West will ultimately contribute to a just and peaceful solution to their long-standing conflict. A firm—and consistent—support of proper democratic processes is also essential: the Palestinians, both inside the Occupied Territories and outside it, must be supported in their right to hold free and unhindered elections at all levels and at all times. Today, these processes are only possible at the whim of the Israeli government, which arrogates unto itself the right to decide who should and shouldn't represent us, thus perpetuating the political stalemate, which only serves the purpose of those with the power to impose whatever realities they wish onto our lives.

Point 6: The Role of civil society, including NGOs, in ensuring a broad popular participation in the development of Palestinian society—a culture/arts perspective

  As in all other societies, Palestinians will be better able to actively participate in the development of their society, provided they acquire a solid understanding of their disposition, their aims and objectives in life, and the nature of their relationship with their people and state. Cultural interaction and artistic expression—so far a neglected sustainable development tool—will contribute significantly towards this understanding. While Palestinian cultural institutions are striving to provide their communities with rich cultural opportunities that will help take their minds off their many daily and economic troubles, their impact is also noted as these communities become more open minded, tolerant and less vulnerable entities. Partaking in the arts, also provides individuals with spaces of reflection, catharsis, debate, and healing in times of war, noted Palestinian examples are: "100 Shaheed-100 Lives" memorial exhibit, the "Stories from Under Occupation" play by Al-Kasaba, the "Going for a Ride" public art installation by Vera Tamari, or the "Divine Intervention" film by Elie Suleiman, etc. Unfortunately the creative endeavors of theatre, cinema, art, dance and music are limited to the central West Bank (namely Ramallah and Jerusalem) and a few isolated events—mainly in theatre and plastic arts—taking place in Gaza City. A rare musical performance in Hebron this summer, for example, attracted nearly 10,000 people—a number exceeding anyone's expectations.

  The importance of cultural engagement is more important today than anytime in Palestinian history as unemployment rates are soaring to levels equal to those in the poorest of nations around the world. Additionally, other than their nationalistic cause, Palestinian youth have fallen into an existential and moral void. Today, Palestinian towns are flooded with young men wandering the streets, smoking cigarettes with nothing to fill the endless free time. Palestinian youth are finding alternative means to keeping busy very scarce. While some resort to religion as a means of gaining guidance and inner peace, others join the few existing social and cultural associations to simply pass time. The majority however, are drifting away, bewildered and vulnerable and losing hope for any life of dignity in the future. Active cultural involvement is one way of leading the society away from any possible overpowering and radical paths and into a more constructive track based on solid self-awareness. Adila Laidi of Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center describes the importance of art in the lives of Palestinians: "The arts have been, and are now more than ever, the only haven where Palestine can be celebrated whole, in its plentitude, and not in its current chopped up avatars; and where Palestinian identity and dignity can be experienced in full."


  Today Palestinians face challenging obstacles, impeding their progress towards more vibrant opportunities for free expression and for having their voice heard. Some of these, as witnessed by the Palestinian Network of Art Centers, include:

Due to military occupation

  The physical attack and destruction of art institutions, centers, and architectural heritage buildings, particularly during the Israeli incursions of Spring 2002. Example: The Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah was broken into with explosives, vandalised, and looted, resulting in damage to art works, the theft of the main computer, and nearly $1,000 in cash, in addition to considerable damage to the historic building considered an architectural landmark of Ramallah. The Bethlehem Peace Center sustained even more devastation and cost over $200,000 to repair after the Israeli Army occupied and ransacked it for more than two months. More provoking was the extensive destruction of numerous buildings of significant architectural heritage importance in the old cities of Nablus and Hebron. In Nablus, where the destruction was more acute, over 10% of buildings in the old city were damaged totally or partially.

  Closures and roadblocks have and continue to prevent daily public access to participate in various cultural activities. On numerous occasions, art groups were prevented from performing in nearby towns thus diminishing their opportunities to share their art with the wider public. This lack of access has also economically impacted the sector as the cultural centers' revenues have decreased with the number of attendees and performances/exhibitions. Training workshops have also been near impossible to organise outside the Ramallah area, thus hindering the opportunities for widespread capacity development in the arts. Roadblocks have also prevented school children from participating in field trips that are paramount to their understanding of their history and heritage.

  The closing down and/or bombardment of main radio and television stations that created a major audio/visual vacuum and often irrecoverable financial losses due to equipment damage or confiscation. The Palestine Broadcasting Corporation TV and Radio stations, Wattan TV, Voice of Love & Peace Radio and Amwaj TV & Radio are among some examples of stations that sustained considerable damage.

  The prevention of international cultural promoters, professionals and performers to enter Palestine by forcing them, upon arrival, to return immediately to their home countries, hence diminishing the Palestinian experience of cultural exchange and exposure. Examples: Marwan Abado is a singer, composer and "oud" player of Palestinian origin that was denied entry into the country by the Israeli Authorities. Mr. Abado was scheduled to perform at this year's Jerusalem Festival—Songs of Freedom. Another example took place in August 2003, when six Swedish consultants representing various cultural fields and centres were on their way to Bethlehem in response to the invitation of the Bethlehem Peace Center in coordination with the Swedish International Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Upon their arrival in Israel, they were taken into police custody and, following intensive interrogation, were asked to sign a disclaimer allowing them entry to Israel with the understanding that they are not to travel to Bethlehem—their ultimate destination! Any attempt to enter Bethlehem, they were warned, would result in a 10-year travel ban to Israel. Five of the consultants refused to sign the disclaimer and were sent back to Sweden after spending the night in the airport prison. The objective of a hands-on exchange with one of the most prominent Palestinian cultural institutions was therefore disrupted and made impossible by such violations. On 15 May 2003, Omar Al Qattan a Palestinian- British film maker, and director of the A.M.Qattan Foundation's Culture and Science Programme, was also banned from entry into the country, along with the Belgian cameraman and sound recordist accompanying him, on "security grounds"—even though he has been traveling to Israel for the last 10 years.

Due to lack of funding and economic constraints

  With the humanitarian crisis becoming acute, more funds were diverted away from cultural support towards other urgent sectors, with heavy emphasis on relief work. This is due to a perception that cultural activities are an "indulgence" and not an urgent donor priority.

  Scarce local funding from local corporate companies, due to dire economic conditions, as these represented significant sources of subsidies in the past.

  With a few exceptions, Palestinian philanthropic foundations are also prioritising the relief effort, and hence withdrawing their traditional support for such activities.

  Considerable reduction in the revenues of cultural centers, artists and performing groups, due to the diminishing of local tourism resulting from the lack of access and mobility.

Due to infrastructure and skill availability concerns

  Decades of occupation have prevented the building of sufficient cultural facilities such as theatres, cultural centers and training facilities. Only a handful of moderately equipped centers operate today—mostly in the central West Bank and Gaza City—and all are seriously threatened by the lack of regular subsidies.

  Very limited technical capacities in the various cultural fields—for example theatre and cinema technicians, sound engineers, choreographers, curators etc


  More than any time in their history, Palestinians are feeling the effects of military occupation on their everyday life. Much has been said about the horrifying unemployment and poverty indicators and the psychological effects of the collective and increasingly widespread and prolonged curfews; yet little is spoken on the account of Israel's systematic attempts at cracking down on the mere existence of Palestinian national and cultural aspirations. Throughout history, Israel's oppressive control over Palestinian lives was maintained by the censorship of all forms of cultural and artistic expression. As occupation sought to distort and destroy all aspects of Palestinian national identity, the Palestinians worked harder on asserting it through song, poetry and dance. Pioneering and innovative work was produced which had a revolutionary and enduring influence on the whole Arab world and beyond—Emil Habibi's novels, Mahmoud Darwish's poetry, the films of Michel Kheleifi are just some examples.

  As specific aspects of life improved for the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza with the initiation of the peace process, so did the opportunities for creative cultural expression. For the first time in their modern history, Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza felt the freedom to create, share and exchange their art and more importantly, get exposed to various cultural movements elsewhere in the world. An explosion of fascinating artistic output was observed; summer festivals were organised in many Palestinian cities with scores of Arab and international artists performing, Palestinian art exhibitions were taking place at home and abroad, art and literary awards were created and so on. The A M Qattan Foundation—an independently funded and managed British-Palestinian organisation dedicated to supporting culture and education—set up offices in Ramallah and Gaza and initiated several modules of financial support for the arts. Yet the current situation is putting all these achievements and aspirations at serious risk.

  Despite this creative output, the longstanding legacy of political oppression of many years, coupled with physical isolation, neglect to the cultural infrastructure and the absence of public policy, have impeded much of the cultural advancement that Palestinians aspire for. Palestinians continue to transcend the enormous obstacles imposed by the occupier and have shown their unwavering determination to express their points of view, their ideas, emotions and their longing for freedom. This spirit will undoubtedly prevail no matter how cruel the occupier, yet for this to happen the international community's support is crucial.

September 2003

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