It was a very tiny taste of what life might be like for the Palestinians under occupation and, believe me, it was bitter.
Eager to attend the second Palestine Festival of Literature, I went to East Jerusalem last week with friends hoping for a feast. But what we got instead was a menacing posse of Israeli security men. The Palestinian National Theatre, the venue for the gathering, was shut down minutes before the formal opening and taken over by heavily armed men who landed in equally heavy, scary looking vehicles. They declared the festival illegal under orders from the Israeli interior ministry. No explanation, no warning. It simply was.
Too shocked to speak coherently and utterly unable to understand how a bunch of pen-wielding men and women posed a threat to Israel, I walked up to the men bulging with weapons to ask "why." My friends, veterans of life here, told me it was a common occurrence and began walking to the hastily arranged alternate venue. But this being the first experience of its kind here, I did what came naturally as a journalist. And forgive me if I thought I was dealing with a police barricade in Delhi or an army checkpoint in Kashmir. You at least got an explanation and sometimes even an apology there. But the Israeli forces looked opaque and offered no hints in Hebrew or English for this sudden occupation of the harmless theatre.
Palestinian organizers, used to such adamant arbitrariness on a regular basis, redirected the speakers and the audience to the French cultural centre a few blocks away. The French, quick and present, opened their doors, arranged some chairs in the garden and plugged in the microphone. And the festival was on. The authors, including Swedish writer Henning Mankell who created the world famous Inspector Wallander, Carmen Callil (founder of Virago press), M.G. Vassanji, a Kenyan-Canadian author of Indian descent, Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif among others, lined up neatly and read from their books, talked and carried on. They had already spent six hours earlier in the day cooling their heels at the main Israeli checkpoint on the border.
The official reasons for trying to shut down the weeklong festival are tortured at best. The letter from the Israeli interior ministry reportedly branded the literary festival a "political activity" connected with the Palestinian Authority. It also said the lit fest was designed to promote Jerusalem as a "capital of Arab Culture" -- a designation given by the Arab League and of course, unacceptable to the Israelis. The current government and the many right-wing puzzle pieces that compose it envision Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, not disputed, nor shared with the Palestinians.
Israel does not allow any Palestinian political events in East Jerusalem, the section Palestinians see as the capital of their future state. Israel has now begun to block even cultural events as if to obfuscate memories and traces of Arab life. A children’s march was prevented in March and a Palestinian press centre set up for Pope Benedict’s visit was shut down earlier this month. And a literary festival supported by Seamus Heaney and the late Harold Pinter is deemed too dangerous to be held.
Is it because official Israel fears any activity, which may suggest that Palestinians too are a cultured and civilized people deserving respect? That they are not all suicide bombers and supporters of Hamas and Hezbollah? That they too can debate ideas and argue theories? Their foremost thinker and literary giant Edward Said, after all, always wanted to "reaffirm the power of culture over the culture of power."
The attempt to block the literary festival was another Israeli overkill of the kind for which the country is unfortunately becoming infamous. Seasoned observers lamented the fact that Israelis were their own worst enemy because it was a net loss on the balance sheet of image. But the real question is whether Israel’s decision makers care enough about international opinion or loss of prestige. The world may not recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s but Israel moves as if it were the capital. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it quite plain last week when he said: "Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people, a city reunified so as never again to be divided." He was marking Jerusalem day, which commemorates the conquest of the city and annexation of East Jerusalem after the 1967 war."
While Israelis celebrated Jerusalem Day and expansion with music and merrymaking, moves were afoot to prevent Palestinians from mourning their incredibly shrinking world. A ministerial committee is considering a bill that would ban Israel’s Arab citizens from marking May 15, Israel’s independence day, as the "nakba" or catastrophe.
Palestinians and Israeli Arabs usually mourn their dispersal and forced displacement in 1948 on that day by walking through villages where they once lived. The proposal to ban the "nakba day" comes from Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, who also has demanded Arab citizens take an oath of loyalty to Israel. You may wonder how grieving for loss by dispossessed Palestinians can threaten a strong state. But then a literary festival jangles stately nerves.