Occupied East Jerusalem – For 29-year-old Palestinian caricaturist Azeez Azeez, the Yabous cultural festival in Jerusalem was an opportunity to showcase his work, for the first time, in an art exhibition.
In contrast to his art, which is often political and painfully blunt, Azeez is a light-hearted and youthful character.
“Today, we no longer need to imagine much in order to produce an image that portrays the high contrast in the struggle on the ground,” Azeez told Al Jazeera at the exhibition.
Pointing to his two hanging artworks of Palestinian children confronting the Israeli army, he said, “You can just look at the news and transfer it literally – just as it is – and these were the results.”
“They’re not radical – they’re very direct and clear,” Azeez added.
The Yabous cultural centre held the 19th edition of its weeklong cultural festival earlier this month, this year titled “Stand Up Jerusalem!” The event extended from September 16 to 21 and included an art exhibition, plays, musical and dance performances, stand-up comedy and workshops.
Located on Az-Zahra street, a five-minute walk away from the Old City of Jerusalem, the centre’s largest hall was full to the brim on all nights, with an estimated 2,000-2,500 people having attended in total.
Rania Elias, the director of the centre, donned a colourful kaftan printed with Arabic calligraphy on the opening night of the festival.
“Joy is not an easy matter in Jerusalem,” Elias explained on stage, as she stressed “the importance of the relationship between culture and liberationist thought”.
“The hardships of remaining, persevering and continuing, in light of difficult political, financial and funding conditions, have become incapacitating.”
That is where Yabous comes in, continued Elias, with its work “to preserve national identity”.
“We consider our cultural projects a tool in the struggle in the face of continuous cultural eradication that is waged against our institutions and the Palestinian people,” she added.
‘Stand up Jerusalem’
The audience clapped and cheered throughout the opening performance of locally revered singer and producer Dalal Abu Amneh, 39, from Nazareth, which is situated in Israel but whose inhabitants are Palestinians.
Abu Amneh began with her own Palestinian songs, singing about her love for her country, and ended with favourites from the wider Arab world.
Bassem Shraydeh, a 73-year-old chemistry professor at an-Najah University in Nablus, who attended the show with his family, was a fan of the performance.
“Dalal Abu Amneh is well known; she’s the pinnacle of singing and originality. She’s very loved,” he told Al Jazeera after the event.
In the days after Abu Amneh’s concert, the festival, which has been organised since 1996, included performances by world-renowned Palestinian electronic music group, 47Soul, a Palestinian folklore dabke dance group, stand-up comedy, a play, and an orchestra bringing together more than 80 musicians from across historic Palestine.
But the cultural scene cannot escape the reality of the Israeli occupation.
In July 2020, Israeli forces raided the Yabous cultural centre, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and the Shafaq Cultural Network in occupied East Jerusalem, on allegations of “money laundering, funding terrorism and tax evasion”.
The offices of the three organisations were ransacked, and their documents, electronic devices, including laptops and phones, confiscated.
The directors, including Elias and her husband Suhail Khoury, who heads the Conservatory, were arrested from their homes and released 12 hours later.
“They [Israeli authorities] are still targeting us on a personal level and as an institution,” Elias told Al Jazeera.
Restricting Palestinian life in Jerusalem
Israeli authorities have for decades restricted Palestinian civil society institutions in occupied East Jerusalem.
The eastern half of Jerusalem was militarily occupied by Israel in 1967 and illegally annexed. There are currently 350,000 Palestinians in Jerusalem, with at least 220,000 Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements among them.
Some 86 percent of occupied East Jerusalem is under the direct control of the Israeli government and settlers. Local NGOs and rights groups have long pointed to a range of Israeli practices and policies in Jerusalem aimed at altering the demographic ratio in favour of Jews, a goal laid out as “maintaining a solid Jewish majority in the city” in recent municipality masterplans.
Dozens of Palestinian institutions and hundreds of events since the early 2000s in occupied East Jerusalem have arbitrarily been ordered to shut down by Israeli authorities on claims of either “ties to the Palestinian Authority” or “to Hamas”, the group that administers the blockaded Gaza Strip.
According to the Jerusalem-based Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights (CCPRJ), since 2001, Israeli authorities have temporarily or permanently closed at least 35 Palestinian public institutions and NGOs in occupied East Jerusalem.
In May 2017, authorities banned a lecture on Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Yabous cultural centre. Israeli police and intelligence arrived an hour before the scheduled start of the lecture – which was intended to raise questions about Jordan’s custodianship over the holy site – and ordered it to be shut down, claiming it had been “organised by Hamas”.
In June 2021, Israeli police banned a popular market in the residential neighbourhood of Beit Hanina in occupied East Jerusalem. The market was part of Palestine Economic Week, a local initiative of pop-up Palestinian bazaars to support local products.
‘Jerusalem’s institutions are skeletons’
Amer Khalil, director of the Al-Hakawati Palestinian national theatre in Jerusalem, said he believed festivals like Yabous’s are critical.
“I think the cultural scene is one of the most important tools that are left at our disposal as Jerusalemites, to preserve the Jerusalemite and Palestinian identity,” Khalil told Al Jazeera.
“The main goal of the occupation is to empty Jerusalem of Arabs, of Palestinians. Culture is a weapon, its a type of resistance, it increases awareness, it teaches people perseverance, it gives them the breath for patience,” the 58-year-old added.
He said that since it opened in 1984, Al-Hakawati theatre had received hundreds of Israeli police notices ordering it to shut down for several days.
“They come, they put a notice closing the theatre for three days for ‘security reasons’, that they have suspicion that there is Palestinian Authority [PA] funding for a specific performance, or that the event includes people who have communication with the PA,” said Khalil.
Other obstacles, said Elias, include the imposition of politically conditional aid from foreign donor states on Palestinian institutions.
“The European Union began imposing conditional aid on civil society in Palestine. We consider this a humiliation to the role of the institutions and their struggle and their work with society,” she told Al Jazeera, adding that Yabous refused conditional aid and, with added problems arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has been struggling financially.
“When you condemn all the political parties, and consider them terrorist groups, what is this aid that you are giving us? For what? For humiliating our struggle?”
“The institutions in Jerusalem are skeletons,” she continued, noting that her own team at Yabous had been reduced from 11 to four employees.
The geographical separation of Jerusalem from the occupied West Bank has also isolated Palestinians in the city.
“The borders are closed on us – when we try to get bands from the West Bank, we face a problem, when we want to bring bands from outside, it’s no longer easy to bring foreigners,” she explained.
“The checkpoints prevent us from connecting with the West Bank. The services, the audience, the artists, have become restricted to Jerusalem alone, and this kills the cultural movement, and kills movement in Jerusalem as a whole.”