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Palestinian festival of dance – and debate

The third annual Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival showcases the growing cultural split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

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Sitting in the Al Kasba theater after the performance of the Belgian troupe, festival organizer Khaled Elayyan talked about how the festival has grown from hosting just six foreign dance troupes two years ago to 14 this year.

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Mr. Elayyan noted, however, that visiting companies are almost entirely from Europe because Israel won't grant visas for dancers from Arab countries. "The idea behind the festival is to bring a cultural dialogue between Palestinian and other people, especially because the Palestinian people are under siege."

But when asked about the criticism of the Islamists, Elayyan became weary. He noted that Hamas made no such stand against the festival after they won a majority in the Palestinian legislature in 2006 or when they were sharing power with Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party a year ago.

"I respect their criticism, but I don't like when people say, 'Stop!' " says Elayyan, the choreographer of the Palestinian dance troupe Sareyyet Ramallah. "There is a conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and they are using the festival as ammunition for that."

But Islamists charge that the Ramallah dance festival – which features men and women dancing together and performers in sometimes revealing dress – runs counter to what they consider as traditional Palestinian culture.

"We have tradition and customs and these performances should comply with them," says Ayman Daragmeh, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank. "The wives of the martyrs would not be happy with these performances if they don't address their suffering."

For the most part, however, Hamas has focused its energy on the military crisis in Gaza rather than Palestinian culture. And yet, the backlash against the arts, however, is not limited to Gaza. In recent weeks, the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, protested a group instructing Palestinian girls on how to dance the Dabka, a Palestinian folk dance, says Yousef Sayeb, an art critic at the Al Ayyam newspaper.

He explained, "It's a kind of battle between those who are against art, and those who are with art and say that art is one of the most important things to get free of the occupation."

Back in the Al Kasba theater, festival goers said the Belgian dance troupe's often tortured performance addressed the pains and trials of the Palestinians. "It's so much like our life," says Alaa Abu Saah, a painter from the West Bank city of Tulkarem. "Such a program gives me comfort and allows me to be free. Our young people need freedom of movement and freedom of thinking. This is a cultural revolution no political power can suppress."