Protesting an Israeli Ban on a Palestinian Puppet Festival

Earlier this week I shared on social media that an International Puppet Festival in East Jerusalem had been banned by Israel’s Ministry of Security when it closed East Jerusalem’s the el-Hakawati theatre because it allegedly received funding from the Palestinian Authority, which is illegal under Israeli law (the theatre strongly denies the accusation). The issue has erupted both online and off, with puppeteers, artists and academics protesting the decision in recent days.

Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world. Jerusalem has existed in one form or another for approximately 6,000 years. Owing mostly to its status as a holy city to the world’s three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) it’s been attacked, sacked, burned, occupied and destroyed dozens of times. So the root causes of the politics – and problems – in a place like that tend go back, waaay back.

So with that in mind I thought it might useful to provide a little of the historical backdrop to this story…

In the modern era, Jerusalem was divided in half in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab/Israeli War. The Western half, which was predominantly Jewish, became part of the State of Israel. The Muslim and Christian Palestinian dominated Eastern half became part of Jordan. After  Israel defeated Jordan and several of its Arab neighbours in the 1967 Six-Day War it unilaterally annexed what would become known as “The Occupied Territories” from them, including East Jerusalem. The city’s future has been a subject of bitter debate ever since.

The 1993 Oslo Accords created the Palestinian Authority (PA), which granted a limited form of self-government to much of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories, although the status of East Jerusalem was deliberately omitted because no agreement on it could be reached. Under the terms of the accords, events sponsored by the PA are illegal within Israel proper as well as East Jerusalem unless a special permit is granted by Israel’s Security Ministry.

It is that permit – specifically a lack thereof – that is the centre of the current dispute. Israel’s Security Ministry claims the el-Hakawati theatre (also known as the Palestinian National Theatre) receives funding from the PA, a charge that it’s director Mohamed Halayiqa – who was reportedly brought in for questioning by Israel’s Shin Bet security service (!) – strenuously denies. He insists that the theatre and the festival is funded by International donors and that Shin Bet has presented no evidence of PA sponsorship.

No one is disputing that the festival itself is an innocent cultural event. There have been no allegations that it has done anything wrong or inappropriate and it has been run by the el-Hakawati theatre without incident for 18 years. What they are essentially (alleged) to be guilty of is not having a permit, which they insist is not required in the first place.

It’s important to understand that although East Jerusalem is governed by the State of Israel (albeit in open defiance of several UN Security Council resolutions) most of its Arab citizens face a completely different economic reality than their Israeli neighbours. East Jerusalem’s children are among Israel’s poorest. They receive little to no government funding, with up to 84% of them living below the poverty line (a statistic that should be a source of shame and disgrace for a wealthy country like Israel). All that cancelling one of the few cultural events for Palestinian children in the city accomplishes is reinforce the idea that Israel an enemy seeking every opportunity to oppress them. This is exploited by Israel’s critics and enemies, which use incidents like this to create hatred and anti-Israeli hysteria internationally.

The Al-Monitor has an excellent take on this:

The festival is one of the few cultural anchors of these children. For them, it opens a door to a whole new world and to a life that they are not used to seeing. It is a one-time opportunity for them to be exposed to cultural enrichment and the basic pleasures to which children in Israel are regularly exposed.

…Instead of realizing that secular culture is the number one enemy of fundamentalism, Israel sees it as advancing that agenda. Instead of recognizing, for example, that the Hamas government does not encourage cultural creativity that leads to greater openness and interactions between Palestinians and the rest of the world, the government regards such cultural activity as toxic. What exactly does puppet theater have to do with suicide bombings? After all, no one even checked the content of the festival or screened the productions in advance. In fact, the decision to shut down the festival was not based on content but on fear.

This foolish decision has provoked a backlash in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Yosef Alalu, supports the festival and told the government’s security officials that they were “wrong and irresponsible” and that they “increase the hatred and anger of the East Jerusalem public.” Both Arab and Israeli puppeteers alike have spoken out on this issue and approximately 1,000 Israeli academics, artists and cultural figures  have signed online petitions calling for the withdrawal of this ridiculous order. In a further show of unity, two rallies in support of the festival were planned for Thursday night in both East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem.

Please show your support and add your voice to the petition to Undo The Decision To Cancel Easy Jerusalem’s Puppet Festival!


Update: From the latest I’ve heard, prospects for the festival aren’t good. I haven’t seen any reports more about this in English language media since Thursday, so if you have news from Israel, please send it to me! I’ll provide updates and more news about this becomes available.