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Jerusalem: Capital of Arab Culture events jeopardized by occupation

Jan. 31, 2009 9:42 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 21, 2009 1:04 P.M.)
Gaza - Ma'an - Jerusalem, Palestine's occupied capital, was designated the "Capital of Arab Culture" for 2009, but organizers are now finding that plans to hold the cultural festival in the city are near impossible due to Israeli access restrictions and organizational challenges.

The yearlong event is part of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (ALESCO) Cultural Capitals program, which began in 1997 in Cairo. The capitals, decided two years in advance by the Arab Ministers of Culture with the Arab League, traditionally showcase elements of their culture through festivals and increased funding to the arts.

Jerusalem was chosen in 2006 when Baghdad withdrew its bid due to security chaos. According to the Palestinian planners of the festival, it may have been easier to hold the events in Iraq after all.

With 2009 already a month old, the festival has no set calendar of events, no venue, and no permission from Israeli authorities for any celebration of Arab culture in Jerusalem.

In 2008 the Capital of Arab Culture was Damascus, and the opening ceremonies involved orchestras and fireworks. "Those who view honoring Jerusalem as holding celebrations and festivals in Jerusalem only are misled and wrong," said Ismail Tillawi, a member of the festival's official planning committee. No fireworks are expected this year.

On Saturday, the Hamas-led de facto government in Gaza said it was set to begin activities linked to the festival in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on 21 March 2009.

For the events in Jerusalem, which are planned under the heading "Al-Quds Capital of Arab Culture," (Al-Quds is Jerusalem in Arabic), may not even take place in the city itself. In November the committee in charge of putting on the events contacted venues in Bethlehem, since Palestinians in the West Bank would be mostly unable to attend cultural events put on in Jerusalem.

In December government officials announced the official postponement of the starting events, in light of the war on Gaza, which finished five days in advance of the scheduled festivities.

The traditional cultural center in Jerusalem, the Orient House, has been closed since 2001 order from the Israeli Minister of Security by renewed every six months. The closure order is signed by the Israeli Minister and justifies the closure on the grounds that the Orient House presents a "security issue."

The most recent twist in the Al-Quds Capital of Arab Culture planning is the announcement by the de facto Ministry of Culture that events will also take place in Gaza.

Hamas and Fatah

The internal Palestinian conflict between rivals Hamas and Fatah has introduced another dimension of chaos into the planning process.

The official committee for Al-Quds Capital of Arab Culture was established by a presidential decree. The committee is made up of 47 Palestinian dignitaries including politicians, academics, and intellectuals from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The committee then formed its own board of directors made up of 20 individuals including the caretaker ministers of education, culture, tourism, information, endowment and foreign affairs. Non-ministerial members include the Palestinian president's advisor on Jerusalem affairs Hatim Abdul-Qadir and the governor of Jerusalem Adnan Al-Huseini.

The board is headed by Palestinian President for the West Bank-based caretaker government Mahmoud Abbas, and he selected Rafiq Al-Huseini to be his deputy.

In Gaza, the de facto Ministry of Culture set up its own national high committee for the celebrations. The Palestinian Legislative Council, where the committee met, was destroyed during the Israeli war on Gaza, and two of the singers set to perform at the events, Hasan Ismail Abu Shanab and Suhieb Abed- Al-A'al, were killed by Israeli fire.

In an effort to unify the fragmented planning, Minister of Culture in the de facto government in Gaza Attah Abu As-Sebah "extended his hand" to the ministries in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, saying that he hoped "culture would unify what politics had separated" and that the events for Al-Quds Capital of Arab Culture could be coordinated.


Abu As-Sebah also announced, in a press conference in front of the demolished PLC building in Gaza City, that the de facto government had budgeted one million US dollars to support cultural activities for the yearlong event.

He also noted that the Gaza government is "hoping that the funders would support the projects and the activities of this cultural occasion."

In Ramallah, Member of the Palestinian higher national committee for honoring Jerusalem as capital of Arab Culture Ismail Tillawi, noted that the Palestinian Authority (PA) had allocated five million US dollars for events in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Funding is also generally provided from ALESCO. Tillawi noted "the Arab Foreign Ministers conference in Damascus [2007] recommended funds for Jerusalem celebrations and for supporting Jerusalem organizations, however, nothing has been received so far.

While it is not clear whether or not any of the PA budget is allocated to Gaza, Abu As-Sebah's comments indicate that there is no cooperation between the ministries around the events.

"We hope that these activities will be unified between the West Bank and Gaza Strip," he said, "but we did not find anyone that extends a hand to us for coordination."

The de facto minister was especially distressed over the lack of cooperation because, he said, the "ministry's staff in the first government formed by Hamas, gained this title for Jerusalem for the year 2009 through touring some of the Arab capitals which came after Damascus gained this title during 2008."

As it stands, celebrations will take place separately in the West Bank/East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. What the events will entail in the former, however, are contrary to what many expect.

Fireworks unlikely

Tillawi, the planning committee member in Ramallah, explained that the events are modified because "Jerusalem is under occupation and facing threats of illegal regulations, namely attempts by Israel to register Jerusalem culture internationally under Israel and the Jewish culture." Thus, he said "it is much better to support and enhance Palestinian cultural institutions and centers in Jerusalem."

While it was not clear what institutions would be supported, or whether there had been any coordination with Israeli authorities in Jerusalem to ensure events and support would go unhindered, Tillawi explained that the aim of the money and events would be to support Jerusalem in their "steadfast" so they can continue to function, rather than pouring money into "funding festivities and celebrations."
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