Pop Idol does what politics – and music students – can't

July 9, 2013
Sarah Benton

‘Arab Idol’ winner Muhammad Assaf performs in Ramallah

A fan climbs a flagpole in Al-Umam Square, recalling images of the first intifada, and the monument in Ramallah’s ‘Time’ Square. July 1, 2013. See 3rd item. Caption by +972, photo by May Castelnuovo.

Gaza’s future music stars face a discordant journey to summer camp

When you’re a child musician from Gaza, and not a rock star like recent Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf, the Israeli army labels you a security risk, and getting to Ramallah is a far more arduous journey.

By Tania Hary, Ha’aretz
July 09, 2013

Last Monday, Palestinian singer and newly crowned Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, from the Gaza Strip, performed the first of three free concerts in the West Bank.

A day before that, the first eleven youngsters of a group totaling 47 musicians from the Gaza Strip, aged 8-16, also performed near Ramallah, albeit with much less fanfare.

The children were taking part in a five-day summer camp for young musicians run by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, a 20-year old institution advancing the study of music through its five branches in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Their request to travel to the West Bank from Gaza was initially rejected by the Israeli army. The official reason for the rejection had been that the request did not meet the army’s definition of “humanitarian,” which is the only circumstance under which a resident of Gaza is allowed to travel to the West Bank. Well, unless you’re Mohammed Assaf. At the eleventh hour and under pressure from various directions, especially from Gisha, the human rights organization I work for, the army decided to let the children travel.

Children make up a staggering 53% of the population of the Gaza Strip. With the population now standing at around 1.7 million, that makes for 901,000 girls and boys under the age of 18. I begin many of talks I give to various audiences with this statistic. The surprise and concern are usually visible on people’s faces immediately. Sometimes I have to repeat myself, often even more than once.

I believe the surprise comes from a deep and intuitive place within many people which has come to equate Gaza with terror and rockets. If there is an image in one’s mind about an individual from Gaza, he is likely to be male, only his eyes visible from behind a black balaclava-type mask. He may be young, but he’s certainly of age. He carries an AK-47 or has a mortar launcher slung over one shoulder.

There are men in the Strip who fit this stereotype, but the statistics speak for themselves and the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza are not militants. In fact, the majority are children. Once you wrap your mind around that fact, it can easily lead you to question the rationale behind a policy which once considered toys and school books luxuries and now prevents travel to the West Bank for recent high-school graduates from Gaza seeking to earn bachelor’s degrees in law and human rights.

Mohammed Assaf, the Arab Idol, has also shattered these stereotypes, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the extensive media coverage about him around the world.

Skeptics might reply: “Young people are being indoctrinated in Gaza by Hamas to become militants so we can’t know who is innocent!” “If Hamas didn’t launch rockets, all kids in Gaza could go to summer camp!” “Israeli children are also suffering!”

I won’t try to dispute these statements here in this short piece. But I will note that the army never said it wouldn’t let the children travel based on security concerns. It didn’t explain how preventing them from going to music camp was going to stop militants from launching rockets or how it might prevent Israeli children from suffering, as they certainly do. My personal opinion is that they didn’t explain the connection because there is none. The policy to limit Gaza access to humanitarian cases has long passed its expiration date, yet when it comes to travel of individuals, even children, it’s still the only language the army speaks.

In one episode of Arab Idol, one of the judges marveled at how many stars like Mohammed Assaf might be in Gaza at that very moment, unknown to the world. We just came to know 47 children who were this close to missing a chance to attend summer camp and develop their musical skills – who knows, perhaps in an effort to be the next stars to represent Palestine. We’re grateful for the happy ending to this particular case and to Mohammed Assaf’s story, which just proves that many more like it are possible.

Tania Hary is the director of international relations at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, on Twitter: @Gisha_Access.

Children from Gaza practising before their concert in Ramallah. Photo by The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Gaza

How hard can it be to get to band camp?

By Gisha-legal centre for freedom of movement
July 2013

The Palestine National Music Competition is meant to be open to Palestinian students of music from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and Israel. Traveling from Gaza to the West Bank, however, involves a complicated coordination process and meeting strict criteria for travel. Potential participants must submit their applications long before the competition is set to take place and undergo security screening. In April of this year, music students from Gaza were compelled to take part in the competition via video conference because their applications to participate in the competition in person were rejected for not meeting Israel’s criteria for exit from the Strip.

In July of this year, however, Gisha was able to help 19 young musicians between the ages of 8 and 15 to travel to a music summer camp at Birzeit University in the West Bank, along with four adult chaperones. The 19 boys and girls are students at the Gaza Music School, a one-of-kind institution in Gaza that teaches Arabic and western music to more than 120 students.

The students were invited to attend the summer camp by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which also hosts the Palestine National Music Competition in Birzeit every two years. Members of the conservatory were excited to finally meet the students in person and could hardly imagine the amount of red tape they had to go through in order to arrive.

It is not a small amount of red tape. Ahead of the summer camp, we asked the 19 students and their five chaperones to contact the Palestinian Civil Affairs Committee which submits permit requests to its Israeli counterpart. On June 19, we contacted the army’s Gaza District Coordination Office to submit a request for the students and their chaperones to be permitted to travel. Eight days later, the DCO replied that the students’ application had been approved, but the chaperones’ denied. We clarified to the DCO that a group of children, the oldest of whom was 15, could not travel from Gaza to the West Bank without adult supervision and that one of the accompanying teachers had received a permit to travel to the West Bank in recent weeks. The DCO approved travel for that teacher the next day. Since she was unable to chaperone 19 students for ten days, the students left on July 2 with only one teacher and without their music teacher. It was only on the following day that the applications of three more chaperones, including the music teacher, were approved. The application of the fifth adult, also a teacher, was not processed since she is not a Palestinian resident and has a foreign passport rather than a Palestinian identity card.

The students ultimately managed to get to the summer camp, where they met students from the West Bank, played music with them, and attended classes taught by guest teachers from around the world. Eight-year-old Abd al-Rahman, 10-year-olds Zina and Mahmoud, 11-year-olds Wail, Shafiq and Ramzi, 12-year-olds Salwa and Nicole, and the rest of the students returned to the Gaza Strip after ten days, hoping to never have to go back to the days of attending summer camp via video conference.

‘Arab Idol’ winner Muhammad Assaf performs in Ramallah

From +972 [This is a photo essay: to see all the pictures, click headline above]
July 02, 2013

When Muhammad Assaf won the ‘Arab Idol’ singing competition last month, spontaneous celebrations took place throughout Gaza and the West Bank.

Upon winning the pan-Arab competition, Assaf promised to hold three free concerts in cities in the West Bank – in Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. As Abeer Ayyoub wrote for +972 last month, with his win, Assaf did what politicians haven’t been able to: he united Palestinians.

On Monday July 1, 2013, Assaf performed for tens of thousands of Palestinians at Al-Umam Square adjacent to the Muq’ata presidential compound in Ramallah, drawing fans and revelers from around the West Bank. Although he only performed four songs, the concert continued the revelry surrounding his ‘Idol’ victory.

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