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Young Gaza musicians break the Israeli siege – by accident

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Here’s a kind of a sunshine story – which is really a stroke of luck, and no thanks to Israel.

Yesterday, Nigel Wilson reported in Al Jazeera that two Gazan musicians, violinist Sofiya Radwan and trumpetist Raslan Ashour (both 16), managed to complete a tour with the Palestinian Youth Orchestra, and perform in the West Bank, although they were originally barred from entering the West Bank by Israel (and told that they could only participate in the Jordanian leg of the tour).  

As I had reported about this case last month, in an article titled “Israel’s siege on Palestinian music”, this case went all the way up to the Supreme Court (thanks to the Israeli NGO Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement), as the Israeli military government first refused to allow the two to participate at all. Amira Hass noted it in her coverage of the case (8th of August) how the Israeli decision was produced by a cohort of officials, consisting of “control addicts enamored of their power”, sitting in the offices in the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv: 

This cohort decided that letting a trumpeter and violinist, both 16, to leave the Gaza Strip does not meet the criteria that were handed down on Mount Sinai – excuse me, that were drawn up by COGAT [Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories]… because thus the Lord commanded: “No Gazans are allowed to leave.” 

But following the petition to the court, in a preliminary response to the petition, the State Prosecutor’s Office partially revoked the ban, announcing that the two musicians were permitted to go to Jordan – but not to Ramallah in the West Bank (“God forbid”, as Hass added).

The Supreme Court ruled that there were no grounds for the court interfering in the state’s decision, especially in view of the state’s “extraordinary granting of permission” for the musicians to take part in the portion of the tour that was in Jordan, and noted finally:

“[M]usical development […] is not necessarily bound by location.”

So it was, that Radwan and Ashour were meant to say farewell to their colleagues at the border crossing between Jordan and the West Bank (Allenby Bridge), and go home to Gaza without completing the tour last month.

But then a miracle happened: When the PYO arrived at the Allenby Bridge, the two Gazans learned that their permission to travel back to Gaza had not been processed. It was a Friday, the first day of the Israeli weekend, and the relevant office was closed (as Al Jazeera reported).

“First, they told us we had to go back to Amman because we did not have permission to go back to Gaza,” recalled Radwan, the violinist. “At one point, they said we could go in. Then, they said we had to go back [to Amman]. They kept changing their story.”

Following a long wait at the border, the musicians were eventually given permission to enter and stay in the West Bank in the custody of the head of the project, Suhail Khoury, who is Executive Director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. It meant that they were unexpectedly able to participate in the Birzeit concert, outside Ramallah.

The musicians were later permitted to stay on for another two days and complete the full tour with the orchestra. Gisha Spokesperson Shai Grunberg said the reprieve demonstrated the flawed reasoning in the initial refusal:

“After Israel went to great lengths, including appearing in front of the High Court of Justice to object to the musicians’ entrance to the West Bank, they eventually relented and allowed them to enter, and the world didn’t end,” Grunberg said.

Indeed, the world didn’t end, but neither did Israel’s siege on Gaza and on Palestinian music. The whole story is a ‘miracle’ that occurred not because of some divine force majeure, but despite the cynical and oppressive intransigence of the Israeli occupation and siege apparatus, backed by Israel’s Supreme Court. As I wrote in May, Israel continues to practice aggressive BDS, boycott, divestment and sanctions – against Gaza – including a cultural boycott. Everything that Israel is crying “anti-Semitism” about concerning BDS – it practices itself. Though the non-violence of the BDS is not even comparable to the murderous violence of the Israeli siege of Gaza, with its seasonal massacres.

As a musician, it delights my heart to know that Radwan and Ashour completed the tour. I know how enriching these experiences are, I myself represented Israel when I was their age, as a violinist at the Jeunesses Musicales World Orchestra over two consecutive years, and it had a huge impact on my musical and cultural development.

The Israeli Supreme Court’s opinion that musical development “is not necessarily bound by location” is for me an expression of a most despicable arrogance, ignorance and chauvinism.

I am so happy for the two musicians, for the Palestinian Youth Orchestra and for head of the project, Suhail Khoury, that their summer tour ended so well. But it’s no thanks to Israel, only thanks to a Kafkaesque stroke of luck.  

H/T Ofer Neiman for alerting me to the development yesterday.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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8 Responses

  1. JosephA on September 17, 2017, 1:20 pm

    Jonathan, thanks for reporting some rare good news — a silver lining in the dark clouds.

  2. Kate on September 17, 2017, 5:04 pm

    See also the Al Jazeera story on this (included in my newslist posted this morning, but near the end so many readers probably didn’t get that far):

  3. chocopie on September 17, 2017, 5:08 pm

    They were kept out of the West Bank in order to demonstrate Israel’s power and control, and they were then allowed in because, in the moment, allowing them in was more convenient for Israel than excluding them. There’s no great principal in excluding them, which was made abundantly cleared when they were allowed in just because of the snafu of having them hanging around with nowhere to go, so they might as well go on to the West Bank and stop inconveniencing the staff.

    And yes, Israel is enforcing something like a super-BDS against Gazans (and really, all the Palestinians who live under Israeli military control). Israel actively thwarts Palestinian social, scientific, cultural, and economic development. I think of this constantly because I’m part of a Palestinian family, several of whose members are immensely talented and successful, but if they had been unlucky enough to be born under Israeli occupation they could never have achieved anything. Israel blocks Palestinian development whenever possible. It’s a crime against humanity. It’s wrong. The waste of human potential is an ongoing Israeli crime.

    We must all notice how this waste of human potential plays out. Any Israeli achievements must be weighed against the losses Palestinians have absorbed. Every Israeli musician who plays a concert is standing in for a Palestinian musician whose music will never be heard. Every Israeli art work, technological achievement, business venture, etc., exists within a context that includes wiping out Palestinian participation. Anything Israelis are doing could be done by Palestinians, if only they were free to do it.

    • Jonathan Ofir on September 18, 2017, 2:24 am

      Such a true and important comment, Chocopie. I’m going to share it as a separate writing on social media.

  4. Elizabeth Block on September 18, 2017, 2:48 pm

    Russia under the Czars was described as “despotism tempered by assassination.” George Orwell, after he escaped from Spain, read a newspaper story about his arrest, and described Spain at the time as “despotism tempered by incompetence.” Israel, I suppose, is despotism tempered, very occasionally, by bureaucratic snafus – though mostly those snafus don’t temper its despotism, but intensify it.
    I might say that when I was there, I was surprised at how often things – little things, perhaps – were messed up. Washrooms on the highway with no t.p., ticket machines for the LRT that didn’t quite work. Minor things. But Israel presents itself as this slick modern country where everything works. Maybe not.

  5. Misterioso on September 18, 2017, 8:24 pm

    I have no doubt that if the 6 million Jews who perished during WWII could have somehow risen from the dead, they would have been the first to condemn Zionism and its spawn, fascistic/racist/expansionist Israel.

  6. JLewisDickerson on September 19, 2017, 10:01 am

    RE: “Following a long wait at the border, the musicians were eventually given permission to enter and stay in the West Bank in the custody of the head of the project, Suhail Khoury, who is Executive Director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.” ~ Ofir

    MY EXCLAMATION: It’s a modern-day miracle! A clear case of divine intervention proving beyond doubt God’s support for the Palestinians!

    • JLewisDickerson on September 19, 2017, 10:11 am

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