Gaza-born Jehad Abusalim describes the devastating effects of Israel’s blockade on the daily lives of Palestinians.
Birzeit, Occupied West Bank – On a humid summer evening in Birzeit, the atmosphere in the Naseeb Azeez Shaheen Auditorium turned raucous when it was announced that two musicians from Gaza would be performing.
The audience had barely settled by the time the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) launched into the familiar, dramatic opening bars of the Star Wars main theme.
“We try to make a point to come to Palestine because this is home,” PYO manager Zeina Khoury told Al Jazeera. “We do it once every few years, when we feel it is possible, and when we have the funding to do it. We tried this year and it worked out, but not as we had planned originally.”
When the PYO was founded in Birzeit in 2004, applications were opened to Palestinians based within historic Palestine and throughout the diaspora. Musicians from across the globe applied to join, including from the Americas and Europe, as well as the Middle East region.
The PYO has since shifted its entry requirements and welcomes young Arabs, aged 14 to 26, from across the region. Sometimes, they are joined by members of international music conservatories who have taken part in exchange programmes with the orchestra over the years.
For those unable to easily reach the orchestra headquarters at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Birzeit, auditions have been conducted over Skype or via YouTube videos. The orchestra usually tours once a year, and recent destinations have included the UK and France.
“Making it happen is always a challenge,” Khoury said. “It’s an adventure to get there.”
Those international tours have been complicated by problems with obtaining visas for the musicians, particularly those from Lebanon and Syria – while musicians from the Gaza Strip, whose UK visa applications were approved, were denied travel permits by the Israeli authorities in 2016.
One of the trickiest destinations for the PYO to hold a concert is within the occupied Palestinian territories, which have been controlled by Israel since 1967. Khoury said that in previous tours of the West Bank, the PYO’s requests for entry permits and travel permits for its performers have mostly been ignored or denied by Israeli authorities.
“It’s not easy to make this happen. It’s our message to the world, music is our form of resistance, and making it happen in Palestine,” Khoury added.
“The Israeli authorities are really afraid of music. They wouldn’t want to stop it from happening, they wouldn’t deny permits, if they weren’t aware of how effective it is.”
Once selected for a tour, musicians are provided with their parts and can practise individually – but given the geographic disconnect of the performers, there is little opportunity to practise as a whole.
Instead, the performers usually meet up just before a tour and undergo an intense week of collective rehearsals.
“We started holding the rehearsals in Jerash, in Jordan, because everyone is able to go there and because people are not able to go here,” Khoury said.
In advance of this summer’s shows, 83 musicians from across the globe arrived at a hotel in Jerash where they spent a full week, eight hours a day, practising and preparing for the tour.
The day before the Amman concerts were due to take place, the PYO was notified that some of its members had been denied permits to travel for the second part of the tour in the West Bank. The applications for 11 musicians from Egypt and Jordan to enter the occupied territory were rejected by Israeli authorities, meaning that the orchestra would have to realign for the West Bank shows.
“It was very stressful, very emotional,” Khoury said. “You lose part of the orchestra, so professionally and artistically, it’s a bit of a disaster.”
Following the concert in Amman, the two Palestinian musicians from Gaza had also packed their bags, said their goodbyes and prepared to return home.
Sofiya Radwan, a violinist, and trumpeter Raslan Ashour, both 16, had initially been denied travel permits for the occupied West Bank as well as Jordan, but their case was taken on by the Israeli NGO Gisha, which specialises in issues of freedom of movement for Palestinians in Gaza.
Gisha petitioned the Israeli high court to appeal the denial and the musicians were subsequently granted permission to travel to Jordan, but not the West Bank. At their court hearing, the judges observed that “music does not depend on location” and concluded that there was no reason to intervene in the decision to reject their permit applications.
“Israel has increasingly restricted movement between Gaza and the West Bank down to its current level, where separation is the rule and access is the rare option,” Gisha spokesperson Shai Grunberg told Al Jazeera.
“Israel prohibits the movement of Gaza residents into and through Israeli territory to the West Bank [as well as between Jordan and the West Bank] other than in ‘exceptional humanitarian circumstances’, and most residents, at any given time, do not meet the strict criteria for requesting a permit to travel,” Grunberg added.
“The restrictions violate the fundamental right of Palestinians to freedom of movement, which is a precondition for exercising other basic rights such as the right to life, the right to access medical care, the right to education and the right to livelihood.”
When the PYO arrived at the Allenby Bridge border crossing between Jordan and the occupied West Bank, controlled by Israel, the two Gazans learned that their permission to travel back to Gaza had not been processed. It was a Friday, the first day of the Israeli weekend, and the relevant office was closed.
“First, they told us we had to go back to Amman because we did not have permission to go back to Gaza,” recalled Radwan, the violinist. “At one point, they said we could go in. Then, they said we had to go back [to Amman]. They kept changing their story.”
Following a long wait at the border, the musicians were eventually given permission to enter and stay in the West Bank in the custody of Suhail Khoury, the head of the Conservatory. It meant that they were unexpectedly able to participate in the Birzeit concert.
“It was a wonderful feeling,” Radwan said. “In Gaza, we do not have the chance to perform with such a big symphony orchestra. We have a smaller version with a few players, but it’s not a big orchestra like this orchestra. It was really grand and a lot of people came and the concert was really good. We performed really well.”
The musicians were belatedly permitted to stay on for another two days and complete the full tour with the orchestra, despite the initial Israeli refusal to allow them to stay in the occupied West Bank. Grunberg said this demonstrated the flawed reasoning in the initial refusal.
“After Israel went to great lengths, including appearing in front of the High Court of Justice to object to the musicians’ entrance to the West Bank, they eventually relented and allowed them to enter, and the world didn’t end,” Grunberg said.
“Life went on as usual; goes to show that there was no reason to refuse them to begin with other than stubbornness and hard-heartedness.”