Joshua Mitnick
The Christian Science Monitor
May 5, 2008 - 5:14pm

Though they were delayed eight hours at the Israeli border, dancers from Belgium's Les Ballets C. De La. B. company eventually made their way to Ramallah's Al Kasba Theatre where they writhed, staggered, and lunged across the stage.

But the Israeli security restrictions on the contemporary dance company were only part of the headache for the third annual of the Ramallah Contemporary Dance Festival. For the first time, the festival has drawn fire from the religious authorities of Hamas – highlighting how the split between the Gaza Islamists and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) has exacerbated a Palestinian culture clash.

In an article published on Hamas's website, the director general of the Islamic Waqf in Gaza, Saleh al-Rakab, called said that the festival "damages" the Palestinian cause and wastes money that should go to impoverished Gazans suffering from Israel's economic blockade.

"This festival is a black stain and a disgrace to everyone involved in it, Mr. Rakab wrote. While Hamas is immersed in "holy" work, the festival is "ridiculous and marginal.… Who has the head for something like this?"

Hamas's ascendancy in Palestinian society signaled a shift in the balance of power between religiously conservative Gaza and the more cosmopolitan seat of the Palestinian government in Ramallah. And the distance between the two Palestinian entities seems only to be growing. Israel keeps Gaza tightly sealed as it launches daily attacks against Hamas militants and continues to negotiate with PA President Mahmoud Abbas on a possible peace deal.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in the West Bank again on Sunday to support talks. Despite mounting odds against a two-state agreement before the end of the Bush administration, Rice said that "it is an achievable goal to have an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis by the end of the year."

Debate over the festival, which started April 17 and runs through Monday, tugs at another realm of the Hamas-Fatah culture clash: What constitutes resistance to the Israeli occupation?

Sitting in the Al Kasba theater after the performance of the Belgian troupe, festival organizer Khaled Elayyan talked about how the festival has grown from hosting just six foreign dance troupes two years ago to 14 this year.

Mr. Elayyan noted, however, that visiting companies are almost entirely from Europe because Israel won't grant visas for dancers from Arab countries. "The idea behind the festival is to bring a cultural dialogue between Palestinian and other people, especially because the Palestinian people are under siege."

But when asked about the criticism of the Islamists, Elayyan became weary. He noted that Hamas made no such stand against the festival after they won a majority in the Palestinian legislature in 2006 or when they were sharing power with Mr. Abbas's Fatah Party a year ago.

"I respect their criticism, but I don't like when people say, 'Stop!' " says Elayyan, the choreographer of the Palestinian dance troupe Sareyyet Ramallah. "There is a conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and they are using the festival as ammunition for that."

But Islamists charge that the Ramallah dance festival – which features men and women dancing together and performers in sometimes revealing dress – runs counter to what they consider as traditional Palestinian culture.

"We have tradition and customs and these performances should comply with them," says Ayman Daragmeh, a Hamas legislator from the West Bank. "The wives of the martyrs would not be happy with these performances if they don't address their suffering."

For the most part, however, Hamas has focused its energy on the military crisis in Gaza rather than Palestinian culture. And yet, the backlash against the arts, however, is not limited to Gaza. In recent weeks, the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, protested a group instructing Palestinian girls on how to dance the Dabka, a Palestinian folk dance, says Yousef Sayeb, an art critic at the Al Ayyam newspaper.

He explained, "It's a kind of battle between those who are against art, and those who are with art and say that art is one of the most important things to get free of the occupation."

Back in the Al Kasba theater, festival goers said the Belgian dance troupe's often tortured performance addressed the pains and trials of the Palestinians. "It's so much like our life," says Alaa Abu Saah, a painter from the West Bank city of Tulkarem. "Such a program gives me comfort and allows me to be free. Our young people need freedom of movement and freedom of thinking. This is a cultural revolution no political power can suppress."


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