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Palestinian's keen caricatures keep censors occupied

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Still, being a cartoonist in the Palestinian territories is not easy. Unlike colleagues whose newspapers are published in Ramallah, Joha must contend daily with censorship from Israeli authorities because Al Quds is published in East Jerusalem, an area declared by Israel as part of its sovereign territory. And Al Quds, according to Palestinian journalists, although officially independent, is in practice heavily influenced by the Palestinian Authority and anxious to maintain its working relations with Israel, Palestinian journalists say. That has a direct impact on the writers and Joha, the journalists say.

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"The Israeli censorship has translated into a kind of self-censorship for the newspaper," Joha said. "I send in the cartoon and the paper calls me and tells me I have to remove things. There is a negotiation, and sometimes it doesn't work out," Joha says. Sometimes no cartoon appears in the paper - a sign, she says, that agreement could not be reached. Cartoons that do not make it often end up on Joha's website, www.omayya.com.

On Sept. 13, Joha placed on the Web a cartoon of buildings shaped in the letters USA going up in smoke and a group of what she calls "oppressed Arabs" standing nearby. They were happy.

"When I drew it, there were a lot of massacres by Israel with American-supplied weapons," she explains. "Everyone was angry at America. The feeling was that this calms people's anger. After I thought more and more, I felt these are innocent people and did not deserve what happened to them." She quickly pulled the cartoon, but not before eliciting death threats from American viewers.

Cartoon character loses his key

It is on the theme of refugees that Joha's efforts are most severely disrupted by the Israeli censor, she says. Her leading character, Abu A'id (Father of Return), is an old man who always carries around his neck the key to the house he lost during Israel's creation in 1948. But the Israeli censor does not allow the key to appear in Al Quds, Joha says. "For them the key is like a knife." Abu A'id has his key only on the Internet.

Joha says she has never been censored by the Palestinian Authority, but adds: "I know what pictures will make problems. So if there is an issue that the authority itself is talking about, that encourages me to do it."

Joha says she "does not make fun of or make people laugh at" Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. "It's out of respect for him; he is the president."

Her cartoons sometimes show Arafat as angry and frustrated from American policies. Once she was told that she had drawn Arafat's lips too big. "Sometimes the paper tells me to change part of the picture, that maybe he will be upset with us," she said.

While she has achieved unusual success for a woman in Palestinian society, Joha is not a women's rights campaigner. Any change in the status of women should be "in accordance with an Islamic point of view," she says.

Joha's cartoons have attracted attention in Israel. "When I see her cartoons, I feel she knows much more than is printed," says Moti Kedar, an Arabic language specialist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. "She provides a mirror for what is really agonizing the people. This makes her miserable. She reflects the real situation on the street better than anyone who writes."

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