Armed with Romeo and red carpets, Gaza Palestinians try to live a little

Despite the devastation of war and poverty, there are a record number of cultural events. But Palestinians say Hamas makes it hard to enjoy themselves.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Palestinian actors performed a Gaza version of Romeo and Juliet in April 2016. Instead of the forbidden love story of European aristocracy, the star-crossed young couple is divided by the internal Palestinian split between Gaza's ruling Islamic militant group Hamas and the Fatah party.

The 1.8 million human beings stuck in the Palestinian Gaza Strip have survived three wars in less than six years; many have lost loved ones, and tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes and are now relying on humanitarian handouts.  

Yet that’s not stopping them from struggling to live, and even to have fun. For the last couple of months, cultural events in Gaza have increased noticeably; movie shows and music concerts take place almost on a weekly basis.

But Gaza’s Hamas rulers, whose strict Islamist values often clash with those of the cultural organizers, have made it difficult for the young people to find enjoyment in such events.

“When they banned me from singing, they banned me from being alive; this is unfair,” says Hamada Nasrallah, the young leader of a band that was banned for having a female oud player.

Gaza has a long tradition of producing poets, artists, musicians, among them Mohammed Assaf, who in 2013 became the first Palestinian to win the Arab Idol singing contest.

Today, cultural pursuits are one of few outlets for young Palestinians in Gaza, a coastal enclave whose borders are tightly controlled by Israel and Egypt – and whose public spaces are ruled by Hamas. The unemployment rate stands at 43 percent, the highest in the world according to the World Bank, which puts Gaza’s youth unemployment at 60 percent. 

Hamas insists that its procedures are meant to secure people rather than restricting their personal freedom. 

“Our job is to facilitate the cultural activities, and to secure the gatherings, not to morally control them,” says Sami Abu Watfa of the Hamas-run Ministry of Culture, who received a record 100 applications in a single month. Recent events range from a Gaza version of “Romeo and Juliet”; weekly concerts by the Dawaween band, and an animated film of Shakespeare's “King Lear” that was produced by high school students and teachers.

Mr. Abu Watfa said that the coordination his ministry has with the police is only concerned about the security of people, denying that the restrictions happen for Islamic or social concerns. 

“We of course care that everyone would feel comfortable at the halls, this is why we separate [by] gender except for the families,” he says. “But it’s mainly about security.’’

Hamas restrictions not clearly defined

When Hamas first seized control of Gaza from its secular rival Fatah in 2007, the Islamist movement became notorious for stopping couples in public places, asking for proof that they were married or engaged, forcing high school students to wear Islamic dress, and ordering men with unruly hair to go to a barber. 

But because the government received a huge wave of criticism from local and human rights groups, it lessened the restrictions. However, it did not cancel them all. 

Still, Hamas doesn’t make it easy for anyone to get a permit to hold a cultural event. Organizers will always have to follow a very bureaucratic process so they can get a permit from Ministry of Culture as the event “should meet the traditions of the Palestinian society.” 

It’s also not a surprise when Hamas police and security men appear in the middle of the event watching people’s behavior and making sure the event is going the way their Islamist government wants it to be. The list of restrictions is not clearly defined, but rather depends on the mood of the policemen who are there. The one rule that is always enforced, however, is that the event should always be gender-separated. 

Gaza movie festival

Three Israeli offensives in Gaza, which Israel maintains were necessary to contain a terrorist organization that has sent thousands of rockets into the Jewish state, have left widespread destruction to Gaza’s densely populated residential areas.

The 2014 summer war was the worst for Palestinians, leaving more than 2,100 killed, and thousands of houses demolished. And while nearly 3,000 homes have been rebuilt, about 75,000 people are still internally displaced, living in shelters. 

A couple of miles away from devastated neighborhoods, hundreds of people from different ages and both genders gathered last month at one of the biggest halls in the Gaza City to watch the opening movie of the Red Carpet Festival for Human Rights Movies in Gaza. For the second year in a row, the Gaza-based filmmaker Khalil Muzayyan organized this event. But he faced endless hardships.

The organizers asked the authorities in Gaza to give them a permit to hold the five-day festival at the Gaza seaport, yet the proposal was rejected, “fearing gender mixing and sexual harassment,’’ according to Saud Abu Ramadan, the spokesperson of the festival.  After negotiations, the festival was conducted at the biggest closed hall in Gaza City, on condition the audience would be gender-separated. 

One of the movie shows, about Palestinian female prisoners in Israeli prisons, was delayed for more than an hour as the policemen refused to have the lights turned off, fearing “immoral stuff to happen among the audience,’’ says Mr. Saud. At the end of arguments, the lights were partially turned off. Saud says that Hamas authorities had asked them to see all of the movies scheduled to be displayed at the festival “so they can cut all the scenes considered inappropriate such as kissing or nudity.’’

One of the attendees, Asaad Saftawi, said he was banned from sitting beside his girlfriend by someone who defined himself as a policeman. “I refused to listen to his orders, I shouted to people telling them there is someone who is threatening to arrest me if I sit down beside my girlfriend,’’ Mr. Saftawi says. People clapped and praised him for his courage, but later policemen came and looked for him. He escaped.

The Hamas spokesperson insists that such measures are for the security of the people rather than moral reasons.

'My dream was killed by these people'

Such measures proved problematic for Mr. Nasrallah’s band, known as Sol, which was recently established in Gaza. The band consists of 10 members, who were banned from performing any music concerts after their first concert had “so many violations," as one member put it. The authorities told the band that the reason for the ban was that they had a female oud player and that the audience was gender-mixed.

“I wanted to start from my home country and then head abroad to make everyone around know about me as a young Palestinian artist. My dream was killed by these people,’’ says Saed Srour, the drum player. “These justifications mean nothing to me. There is nothing wrong in a girl playing music or friends from different genders sitting down with each other.’’

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