From science to classical music, Israel clamps down on Palestinian culture

The last months have seen Israel crack down on cultural figures and intellectuals in the occupied territories. Critics say the attacks are part of a larger strategy of suppressing Palestinian civil society.

Suhail Khoury and Rania Elias were arrested last month by the Jerusalem Police. A married couple, they are, respectively, the Palestinian directors of the Jerusalem Society for Music Teaching and Research, and the Yabous Cultural Center — two East Jerusalem institutions that were simultaneously raided at the time of their arrests. The police accused them of tax avoidance and fraud, but have yet to present them with any charges in relation to the allegations.

Khoury and Elias were not the only prominent figures to be targeted by the Israeli authorities last month. A few days earlier, Palestinian astrophysicist Imad Barghouthi was detained at a checkpoint while traveling from Al-Quds University to his home in the West Bank; he has been charged with incitement and remains in custody. And in late July, Ahmad Qatamesh, a Palestinian author and academic, was released after being held for seven months in administrative detention — a procedure by which Israel holds detainees without due process.

Not unique in themselves, each of these cases is part of a wider phenomenon of arrests and detentions of Palestinian academics, scientists, and cultural figures conducted by Israel for decades. Taken together, these practices can be viewed as part of a wider effort by the Israeli government to weaken Palestinian society by suppressing and undermining its knowledge producers, with the unstated objective of ensuring that only one state and society — a Jewish, Zionist one — thrives in Israel-Palestine.

While the “peace proposal” put forward by the U.S. government earlier this year calls for the creation of a Palestinian state of sorts, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has in fact consistently worked against this possibility. This has largely come in the form of denying Palestinians the basic pillars of statehood, among them the ability to have contiguous, sovereign borders, and a military force. But it also involves hamstringing the Palestinians’ capital of what can be described as “soft power.”

In contrast to coercive “hard power,” like the use of force or bribery, soft power encapsulates a nation’s ability to attract support and influence others by the strength of their values and common interests. As Joseph Nye, the American academic who coined the phrase in the 1980s, described, “in today’s global information age, victory may sometimes depend not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.” While soft power is most commonly used in the study of international relations, its usage can be understood beyond the constraints of state vs state interactions, with companies and even militias practicing forms of soft power.

This is as equally true for stateless Palestinians, who have been waging their own soft power battles with Israel over historical narratives, public discourse, and media representation, among others. This is why, in addition to maintaining one of the most potent military forces in the Middle East, Israel has invested heavily in hasbara, or propaganda activities, including by establishing a Strategic Affairs Ministry and a network of allied NGOs to channel its political messages and present the state in a positive light.

‘They don’t want Palestinians to be visible’

Israel’s systematic targeting of Palestinian knowledge and culture producers, like those arrested last month, demonstrates how it also uses hard power to undercut the soft power of the other. Israeli police seized electronic devices and financial papers from Suhail Khoury’s and Rania Elias’ home and workplaces during their arrest, and detained another colleague. The authorities accused the couple of money laundering on behalf of terrorist organizations, although no formal charges were made.

Speaking to +972, Khoury expressed his concern over the seriousness of the police’s allegations, which he says are “totally rubbish, totally unsubstantiated.” He added that neither he nor his wife are involved in politics or affiliated with any political organizations. On Tuesday, an Israeli judge ordered the police to return the couple’s computers within a week. Neither Khoury nor Elias have been charged with a crime.

The Jerusalem Society for Music has been subjected to Israeli pressures before, Khoury explains, most often in the form of movement restrictions imposed on members of the orchestra or visiting musicians; on some occasions, travel permits that the institute applied for months in advance of a concert arrived only after the performance. Jerusalem police have also interrupted and shut down events taking place at the Yabous Center, often under the pretext that they are linked to the Palestinian Authority, he says.

“There are ongoing attempts by Palestinian authorities to carry out activities in Jerusalem,” an Israeli police spokesperson said in response to questions from +972. “Police are continuing to prevent that from taking place, including during the last few months of COVID-19.”

Such activity by the PA has gradually increased, the spokesperson continued, adding that Khoury and Elias were detained on suspicion of tax avoidance and fraud. Under the regulations of the Oslo Accords, the PA is prohibited from operating in East Jerusalem, territory which is administered by Israel (after conquering the eastern part of the city in 1967, Israel formally annexed the territory through a 1980 Basic Law).

Khoury, for his part, scoffs at the suggestion of financial impropriety, noting that both his organization and the Yabous Center are audited by the multinational professional service companies Deloitte and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), respectively. Rather, he believes, his crime is that he loves his country and Beethoven. “They don’t want Palestinians to be visible to the world; it’s difficult to dehumanize people playing classical music,” he says.

Innovation as power

Culture, and the stories that grow out of it, are just one form of soft power; technological innovation spearheaded by a nation’s scientists is another. Israel itself is an example of this: it is essentially a superpower in the world of high-tech companies, its strength disproportionate to its size, with successful companies like Waze becoming global household names.

The comparison of the Israeli and Palestinian economies is a striking case of the extent to which the occupation actively prevents the latter from fulfilling the same potential, says Mario Martone, one of the co-founders of Scientists for Palestine, an organization that assists Palestinian academics in integrating with the international scientific community.

Both are small nations, but only one is enjoying huge economic gains from the innovations of its academics, he explained. Free movement locally and internationally — which Palestinians are denied — and the collaborations that come with it are an essential part of academic growth.

One reason for Israel’s success, Martone notes, is its own strong international networks, particularly with institutions in the United States and Europe, the latter with which Israel enjoys extensive access under the Horizon 2020 program. “If all of Israel’s networks and funding were cut off, then it would have no science either. It would have a lot of talent that went nowhere, like Palestine today,” he says.

This inhibiting of talent is seen in the case of Imad Barghouti, a well-renowned astrophysicist who has worked on NASA-linked projects. Instead of preparing to teach his students in the upcoming semester, he is now trapped in detention, says Martone.

The indictment filed on August 2nd against Barghouti, who was previously held in administrative detention in 2014 and in 2016, accuses him of incitement and support of organizations hostile to Israel. It lists as evidence a statement Barghouti allegedly made praising a family member involved in the 2001 Sbarro restaurant bombing, which killed 15 people and injured over a hundred others, as well as images of Hamas flags posted on Facebook.

As +972 has previously reported, while Israel encounters a large number of incidents of incitement every year, in the majority of cases, the authorities enforce laws — and sometimes very dubiously — primarily when the perpetrators are Arab.

No symbol of self-determination

Being remanded in custody without charge or trial, under the pretext of representing a threat to Israel, is not uncommon for Palestinian academics. In addition to author Ahmad Qatamesh, who has spent a total of five and a half years in administrative detention, U.S. citizen and academic Ubai Aboudi was similarly detained last year, where he remains to this day.

Administrative detention could be justified in some rare instances, such as to prevent a specific crime that authorities believe an individual intends to commit in the near future, explains Jessica Montell, the executive director of HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual. But this is not how Israel uses this procedure: 335 Palestinians are currently held without trial, a number of them for predefined lengths of time, likely unrelated to specific intelligence.

Many administrative detentions are upheld on the basis of Israeli military reports which are shown to judges, but that defendants and their legal teams are prevented from examining. “The suspicion is that people are being held for nonviolent organizing, but we don’t know because they’re convicted on secret information,” says Montell.

The concern is that the arrests of Khoury, Elias, Barghouti, and many others are not related to genuine security considerations, but rather are an attempt to quash Palestinian cultural growth. Like other regimes, Israel understands that controlling a nation’s intellectuals is a path to controlling its entire population. Its methods of doing this — including criminalization, accusations of terrorism, and administrative detention — may be less brutal than some authoritarian regimes elsewhere in the world, but they operate with the same, repressive objective in mind.

Student clubs, labor unions, charitable organizations, and political parties have all been smeared with sweeping accusations of terrorist links by Israel, explains Sahar Francis, director of the Palestinian prisoners’ rights NGO Addameer. A central component of the occupation, practiced for years, is the delegitimization of Palestinian civil society, she says.

The strategy, Francis continues, is to persistently claim that an individual or institution has ties to an illegal organization such as Hamas or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), because directly attacking prominent cultural centers like Yabous would be an overreach. The objective nevertheless remains clear: the suppression of Palestinian civil society and the soft power that it can generate for its cause.

“They do not want any Palestinian activity in the east side of Jerusalem that can reflect any kind of societal or civil symbol of self-determination,” Francis says.

Spokespersons for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Israeli military declined to comment, or did not immediately respond to questions relating to this article’s subject.