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Sunday, 19 September. 2021
 
Your Key to Palestine
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This year, Arabs and Palestinians honored the city of Jerusalem as 2009's "Capital of Arab Culture." Each year, Arab cultural ministers name one Arab city as the "Cultural Capital," last year's designate being Damascus, Syria. The title came this year with a fanfare of activities throughout Palestinian cities, crowned off by a huge VIP event in Bethlehem where prominent artists and Arab cultural figures throughout the Arab world conveyed their sentiments of solidarity and support via video conference and Palestinian folkloric groups performed live.

So it would seem that the designation is not and should not be politicized. Naming an Arab city a cultural capital is about preserving its heritage and its Arab identity, passing on the torch of our culture to newer generations that may not be as well versed in it as others. It is a sort of revival, an honor bestowed upon the Arabs' most revered cities and homage paid to its rich history.

Enough said. For these very reasons, Israel was adamant to stop the festivities. Much along the theme of the children's story "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas," Israeli authorities chased children with red, white, black and green balloons – the colors of the Palestinian flag – in an attempt to halt them from being released. It did not allow the Palestinian flag to be raised in occupied east Jerusalem nor did it let young Palestinians gather together in song and dance in the streets of the Old City.

In any case, the celebrations were already a few months late. Planned for January, 2009, the festivities had to be postponed because of Israel's invasion of Gaza, the results of which were devastating. At the time, the organizers decided to reschedule the launching for March.

Needless to say, the irony of the situation cannot be lost on the fact that the festivities were launched from Bethlehem rather than the city being honored. Dignitaries from several Arab countries flocked to the city just south of Jerusalem along with scores of Palestinian officials, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Palestinians carrying West Bank IDs are not allowed into Jerusalem, so the Arab cultural capital could not be celebrated properly by its own people. Instead, the organizers chose the Palestinian city closest to the capital to hold the day-long events.

In Jerusalem, residents of the eastern sector of the city tried to compensate but were pushed back by Israel's iron-strong military force. Even before the actual day of the launching, March 21, Israeli forces raided a hotel where organizers were staying, confiscating documents, a laptop and ID cards. "No show of Palestinian sovereignty" in Israel, was their excuse.

On the day, over a dozen organizers and participants were arrested by Israeli authorities, including Hatem Abdel Qader, a consultant to the president on Jerusalem affairs, charged with organizing the balloon launch. When approached for official permits to hold the event in Jerusalem, the organizers were duly rejected by Israeli authorities.

Miraculously, however, Israel could not put a damper on the people's enthusiasm. In the streets of the Old City, groups of two musicians (Israel banned anything larger) sat playing Arabic instruments to the tune of classic Arabic songs. Small crowds gathered around the young musicians including foreign tourists who were clearly enjoying the change of pace. Directly to the side, a group of Israeli soldiers and police stood ready for action, their eyes hawkishly eyeing the crowds and their fingers clenched tautly around the triggers of their guns.

Still, the mood was unbelievably cheerful. The sound of authentic Arab and Palestinian music ringing out throughout the Old City walls brought immense joy to those who stood listening. It was also a moment of pride for many Palestinians who have grown accustomed to Israel squashing any sign of Palestinian culture in the occupied city.

So, just like the Grinch who tried to cancel Christmas by stealing all of its trappings and who nonetheless could not kill the Who family's spirit, so did Israel fail in Jerusalem. True, there were not the grandiose events one would expect from an event of such magnitude, but the Palestinians drew their strength from the outpour of solidarity from others. On the big screen of Bethlehem's conference center, Arab artists such as Marcel Khalifeh and Durayd Lahham stressed Jerusalem's Arab identity and their solidarity with the Palestinians. Palestinians in Jerusalem remain undeterred, launching the balloons in spite of the heavy Israeli military presence around them and song and dance broke out sporadically throughout the eastern sector of the city whenever a moment could be stolen away from the prying eyes of Israel's army.

If nothing else, Jerusalem was heard. There have been many times when Palestinians in the city have felt sidelined during political negotiations and geographically isolated because of Israel's policy of severing the city from its Palestinian surroundings. But on March 21, Jerusalem was in the spotlight. Its name as an Arab cultural capital was broadcast on television, splashed across newspapers and magazines and uttered by millions. Throughout the coming year, the world will be repeatedly reminded that Jerusalem has a long and deep Arab history and culture. It will be reminded that its eastern sector is still under Israeli occupation and it will be reminded that a political solution must be found for its culture to flourish.

Israel may have been able to stamp out the more visible markings of the day, but one thing is for certain. In spite of all its oppression, this day confirmed that Jerusalem is and always will be forever in our hearts.

 
 
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