Israel's Total Assault on Palestinian Life: Latest Crackdown Is Attempt to Wipe Out Their Culture

The most extreme government in Israel’s history is wasting no time getting down to business. One of its first acts is targeting Palestinian freedom of expression.

In June, Naftali Bennett, the Israeli education minister (who once boasted of killing “lots of Arabs”), announced he was pulling state funding from a play created by Palestinians. He claimed the play glorified terrorism, though an Israeli committee that approves funds for plays for Israeli youth to attend had approved the performance after finding it did not encourage violence. His announcement was followed by the Culture Ministry’s decision to pull more funding from the theater in Haifa. In the same month, Israeli culture minister Miri Regev (known for calling African migrants to Israel a “cancer”), threatened to cut state funding to a children’s theater because its head, Norman Issa, announced his refusal to perform in an illegal Israeli West Bank settlement. Regev has since backed down after Issa reportedly agreed to perform at the settlement theater.

It all adds up to a sustained attack on Palestinians’ right to freely express themselves. In the West Bank, which is under military occupation and governed by strict military law, freedom of expression is sharply curtailed. But the threats of cuts in state funding for Palestinian cultural performances have taken place inside the Green Line, where Palestinians have citizenship but suffer discrimination in a host of areas. (The Green Line is the name given to the armistice lines drawn up between Israel and Arab states following the 1947-'49 Arab-Israeli war.)

The attacks on Palestinian culture are particularly pernicious, but as journalist David Sheen pointed out on AlterNet, Israel has strict speech laws. “Israel’s libel laws are already heavily weighted to protect people in power. Citizens who make disparaging remarks to a government worker, police officer or member of Knesset can also face additional charges of ‘insulting a public servant,’” Sheen pointed out.

The targeting of Palestinian plays is the bitter fruit of a government dominated by the right. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his third straight term. What followed was months of haggling until Netanyahu was forced to govern with a narrow coalition dominated by the right. Major ministerial posts were given over to Likud and the Jewish Home party, which is led by Bennett. The Jewish Home and Likud parties have shown contempt for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Netanyahu garnered international headlines right before the election when he warned that “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves.”

In a meeting with Israeli representatives of the art community after the election, Likud member of Knesset Regev told them, “We know that the left thinks it owns Israeli culture, [but] we don't need to be confused about who the public is and who [the public] chose.” Regev is making good on that promise by trying to placate her right-wing base in going after Palestinian culture.

The threats to the actor Norman Issa and his theater company are the most prominent symbol of that. The fracas started when Regev, in a June 9 Facebook post, denounced Issa for not wanting to perform over the Green Line in the Jordan Valley, an area under intense military occupation and settler takeovers. “If Norman does not change his mind, I intend to reexame my ministry’s support for the Elmina Theater, which operates under his management,” Regev said.

Issa is the head of the Elmina Theater in Jaffa, Israel. Because of Issa’s refusal to perform in the occupied West Bank--a stand frequently taken by leftist Israelis--Regev threatened to pull state funding for his Jewish-Arab theater space.

While Regev seems to have let up after Issa said he would, in fact, perform, education minister Naftali Bennett has followed through on his punitive actions targeting Palestinian culture. The play that has sparked controversy, Parallel Time, caught the attention of Israeli officials when it was performed with Hebrew subtitles at Al-Midan Theater in Haifa, the center of Palestinian cultural and political life within Israel. It tells the story of a Palestinian prisoner who had been convicted of killing a soldier. But the play is not about the violence. It’s about mundane life in an Israeli jail.

Last year, the play was given a stamp of approval by an official Israeli committee, which looks at which plays are suitable for youth to attend on the dime of the Ministry of Education. But the play has sparked protests this year, fueled by high tensions over the attack on Gaza. Bennett jumped on the chance to pull government subsidies for the play. “I want to be very clear: The citizens of Israel will not pay out of their pockets for plays that accept the murders of soldiers,” Bennett said, announcing his decision. And on June 16, Regev’s Culture Ministry said it would temporarily halt funding to the Al-Midan Theater. Regev claims the theater has dubious funding sources.

The crackdown on funding for Palestinian cultural institutions is the latest move by Israel to marginalize Palestinian citizens. According to Adalah, a Palestinian rights group, over 50 laws discriminate against Palestinians living within Israel, including bans on family reunification if one spouse lives in the occupied territories, and restrictions on land use and where Palestinians can live. In 2011, the Israeli government approved what is known as the Nakba Law, which mandates the removal of state funds to institutions that commemorate the Nakba, the Arabic term for Israel’s expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians during the 1947-1949 war that led to the creation of Israel.

Some observers of Israel/Palestine, like Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf, have predicted that the new government will keep the status quo of occupation in the West Bank and Gaza while targeting internal dissidents: Palestinians and the Israeli left. With the moves on Palestinian culture, Sheizaf appears to be right. And the right-wing government is now gearing up to go after Israeli rights groups that work to defend Palestinians. Right-wing members of Knesset, including culture minister Regev, want to pass a bill that would tax foreign donations to Israeli non-governmental organizations at a rate of 45 percent. That kind of bill would make raising money much harder for Israeli left-wing groups, which is exactly what the right wants. Israel’s government and right-wing base are on a quest to shut down dissent wherever it pops up.


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