Palestinian cultural figures arrested in occupied Jerusalem

Three prominent Palestinian cultural figures were arrested by Israeli authorities in occupied Palestine yesterday, July 22. Suhail Khoury, director of Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), and his….

Three prominent Palestinian cultural figures were arrested by Israeli authorities in occupied Palestine yesterday, July 22.

Suhail Khoury, director of Palestine’s Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), and his wife, Rania Elias, director of Jerusalem’s Yabous Cultural Centre, were taken by Israeli authorities from their home in the Beit Hanina area of Jerusalem. The Israeli authorities then raided both the ESNCM and Yabous, confiscating computers and documents. The two were released later in the day “under conditions”, as Rania Elias’s lawyer Naser Owda put it.

In a related attack, Israeli authorities ransacked the Silwan home of Daoud al-Ghoul, director of the Jerusalem Arts Network. Known as Shafaq, this is an umbrella network for both Yabous and the ESNCM, as well other Palestinian cultural institutions. Al-Ghoul was released today.

The Conservatory’s five branches, as well as Yabous, Shafaq, Beit Hanina, and Silwan all lie on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, or 1949 Armistice Line. None are in Israel.

Conservatory Director Mohammed Maragha reported that occupation forces surrounded the school at about 9:00 AM, waited for staff to arrive, and then confiscated seven computers, large number of files, and the equivalent of twenty-one boxes of documents dating back to 2014. The Israeli forces claimed to be searching for whatever they thought would be linked to “financing terrorism,” on which grounds they also confiscated several devices from the Beit Hanina home.

Lawyer Owda reported that Khoury and Elias were interrogated for 12 consecutive hours at the Abu Ghunaim police station south of occupied East Jerusalem on charges of “financing terrorist organisations”. Documents seen by the AFP news agency also cite “suspicion of money laundering [and] funding terror”.

Micky Rosenfeld, Israel’s Police National Spokesman to the foreign Media, referred to the ESNCM and Yabous as organizations “claiming” to be “involved in Palestinian culture.” He announced that “three suspects” were detained “in connection with tax evasion and fraud,” without naming them but clearly referring to Khoury, Elias, and al-Goul. Rosenfeld is a former combat officer in the Yamam counter-terrorism unit.

Yesterday’s arrests are reminiscent of the 2017 arrest of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions founder Omar Barghouti for alleged tax evasion. Barghouti’s passport was confiscated, disrupting his travel plans, later returned to him following a legal challenge. He was never actually charged with any crime.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music was founded in 1993 by a small group of Palestinian musicians, initially operating under the wing of Birzeit University. Its first branch opened in Ramallah that year, followed by the Jerusalem branch in 1996, Bethlehem in 1997, Nablus in 2010, and Gaza in 2012. More than a thousand students are enrolled within the different branches and 580 more in children’s choirs. (This wholly Palestinian initiative is not to be confused with the unrelated Barenboim-Said Music Center in Ramallah.)

The Yabous Cultural Center, an invaluable multi-arts lifeline for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, has been targeted by Israel in the past. This writer was a witness to one such incident, when on March 26, 2014 Israel raided the institution and closed it down, claiming that a conference on Civil Service scheduled for that evening, organized by Legal Aid Foundation and similar organizations, constituted “terrorist activity”.

Tim Pottier, former Orchestra Manager of the ESNCM’s Palestine National Orchestra and Palestine Youth Orchestra, made this comment about yesterday’s events:

Israel is not just arresting two people who have worked their whole lives to nurture music back into Palestinian culture after decades of colonial occupation — it is using brute force to extinguish cultural life for thousands of artists, students and people in wider society. This is a new level of low, but it isn’t new. In my tenure managing musical projects in Palestine, the Israeli military and police would never be far away to make it as hard as possible to let rehearsals and concerts take place. Regardless of whether it was a children’s orchestra or professional group, the agenda was to make it as difficult and cumbersome a task as possible to put concerts on.

PalMusic UK, a UK-based support organization for the ESNCM, issued the following statement (excerpted):

It is with great sadness and heavy hearts that we have learnt today that Suhail Khoury, Director General of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) and his wife Rania Elias, the Director of Yabous Cultural Center, the only Palestinian Cinema in Jerusalem, were arrested and taken from their home this morning.

Without explanation, all computers and paperwork from 2015 onwards were confiscated from the ESNCM’s Jerusalem branch early in the morning when minimal staff were around.

It is with great regret that we see the cultural life in Palestine, more specifically in Jerusalem, being attacked in this way, and we strongly object to such arrests. We call on the international community to stand with us against the discrimination enforced against cultural organisations in Palestine which are the most important vehicles for harmonious living and peace.

Israel has recently banned Palestinians from holding activities or events in East Jerusalem, has shut down many organisations and arrested several of their employees together with other Palestinian activists in the city.

Outrage on social media against the Israeli actions was quick and impassioned, and indications that voices in the larger global arts community would get involved might have contributed to the “conditional” release of Khoury and Elias. There is no news yet on the extent of the immediate disruption to their cultural institutions, already crippled by the COVID19 epidemic, nor whether Israel’s case against them and al-Ghoul will continue.

For more on Israeli interference in Palestinian musical life, see Israel vs the Violin (2015).

Sources: Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, Al Arabiya, Middle East Eye (which misidentifies the ESNCM), and personal contacts in Palestine