The Al-Etehad Gallery in Gaza was unique: until last week it was the last cultural center on Hamas government land allowed to stay open. A symbol of the arts in Gaza, a place desperately in need of cultural distractions, it catered to families looking for some respite from the Occupation.
But that all changed last week when Hamas officials decided to bulldoze the building. According to government sources, the gallery owners were late on their rent payments but most Gazans raised more than an eyebrow at this ‘reason’ for the destruction of yet another cultural center.
When Hamas first came to power in Gaza five years ago, they closed most of the traditional cultural centers, places that organized everything from extra school classes to ‘Dubka’ dance events. It wasn’t just the buildings they were interested in either: radio stations and newspapers also faced the governmental wrath.
So called ‘Young and Happy Radio Station’ was one of those deemed unacceptable by the new Hamas government. Newspapers faced a similar fate and nowadays the only rags in circulation are those owned by the state.
One of the first cultural bases to go was the ‘Seeds of Hope’ center. In the summer of 2008, the building was stripped clean of furniture, playground equipment, books and even the front door. Bullets were then shot through windows and walls.
“They gutted it completely,” said Dr. Taysir “Tass” Abu Saada, president of Seeds of Hope International. It was a pattern that has continued up until the destruction of the Al-Etehad Gallery this week.
Even without the use of cultural buildings, locals still face an ordeal to keep their cultural heritage alive. In order to organize any events that might be deemed ‘cultural’, Gazans must have express permission from their government: a lengthy and bureaucratic procedure with no guarantee of success. Locals now say it feels like they are living under two Occupations: dealing with both Israel’s constraints and those from their own government.
Although Israel claims that they are no longer an occupying force in Gaza since they withdrew troops in 2005, both the European Union and the UN disagree. The restrictions on imports, exports and personal movement mean local cultural centers are even more important than under ‘normal’ circumstances.
Yet there’s no let up on the cultural crackdown and Hamas have made it clear that dissent will not be tolerated. Two years ago Gazan youths put together a ‘manifesto’ criticizing their government for curbing freedom of expression including in the creative arts. The response: arrest for those involved and no change at all in government policy. For a party concerned with the legacy of Palestinians, Hamas are certainly doing their best to stop the cultural continuity.
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