David Harris
February 24, 2010 - 1:00am

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to add two West Bank shrines to a list of Israeli national heritage sites has drawn harsh condemnation from the Palestinians.

Deposed Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haneya on Tuesday called for popular uprising in the West Bank to protest Israel's decision, one day after Israeli security personnel and Palestinians clashed in the West Bank city of Hebron.

Netanyahu made the move following an outcry from the Israeli political right, which claimed the initial omission from the list of Cave of the Patriarchs (Sanctuary of Abraham) in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem was politically motivated.

Jews believe the cave is the burial site of the biblical Abraham and his family with some claiming Adam and Eve were also interred in the two-leveled chamber. Rachel's Tomb is said to be the final resting place for the wife of Jacob.

However, Palestinians see Hebron and Bethlehem as being part and parcel of their territory and the cities would almost certainly be part of any future Palestinian state. Palestinians see Netanyahu's inclusion of the cave and Rachel's Tomb as being a political act.

This is not the first time that Israelis and Palestinians have clashed over historical and cultural activities.


When the Arab world bestowed the status of Capital of Culture on Jerusalem for 2009, it was clear the Israelis would be angered by the selection. The status of Jerusalem is arguably the most controversial of issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its "united capital" while the international community deems the eastern side "occupied territory. " As a result, any formal acts that effectively make a claim on the land immediately cause anger on the opposing side.

Much of the year of culture in Jerusalem was overshadowed by politics. The opening ceremony had to take place in Bethlehem because Israel would not allow Palestinian leaders to launch the event in what Israel perceives as its own territory.

This literal divide and the world of art have combined in the separation barrier built between Israeli and Palestinian terrain.

While much of the barrier is made from chicken wire fencing, on the edge of Jerusalem it takes the form of a gray, 10-meter high concrete wall. However, much of the grayness has been replaced by the color of protestors.

Graffiti spans the wall, with artists from around the world adding their thoughts on Israeli actions. The painted contributions are not just in the form of comments but also insightful drawings depicting elements of the struggle.

The barrier has become a regular stop on the tourist trail making it part and parcel of the propaganda war between the Palestinians and Israelis. At one stage the Israelis placed a bus next to the most-visited section of the wall. The vehicle became a macabre museum piece. Its last passengers had been killed or wounded by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

Archeology in Jerusalem always results in bitter political disputes and a global vote last August on the world's seven natural wonders created something of a storm as the Dead Sea became one of the 14 finalists. The northwestern corner of the lake is in Palestinian territory, while the remainder of its western half is in Israel.


The fact that the world of art has become a flashpoint in the conflict does not come as a surprise to Mike Dahan, a lecturer at Sapir College in Israel's Negev Desert. He views the relationship between culture and politics in the same way as religion and politics - things that are virtually impossible to separate in the fiery Middle East.

"Of course culture is used in terms of politics and culture expresses politics. I think every society uses it as a tool," Dahan said on Tuesday.

On the practical level that can make life very difficult, as private Palestinian consultant on education and culture Suhail Miari discovered when he advised the committee that organized Jerusalem's year of culture.

While he accepts that the Arab League's decision to grant the status to Jerusalem was politically motivated, Miari was surprised by the extent to which Israel hampered the artistic proceedings.

"We did not realize that Israel would prevent Palestinians from exhibiting their music, their art," he said.


Both the Israelis and Palestinians are guilty of using politics in culture and vice versa, according to Dahan, but the lion's share of the responsibility lies with Israel, simply because it holds nearly all of the cards. The Cave of the Patriarchs is a perfect example.

"As far as Israel is concerned, it's an attempt to establish facts on the ground, to further increase the entrenchment of Israelis within the territories," said Dahan.

As a by-product of the politicization of culture, the arts do receive more funding than they might otherwise. The eastern side of Jerusalem, for example, saw investment and cash benefits as a result of the Arab League's vote in favor of the city as Arab Capital of Culture.

However, Dahan insists the political ramifications are far more serious and he views the entire process as extremely dangerous and unhealthy.

That is an opinion shared by Miari. He saw things have become more difficult and more politically motivated during recent years.

Like all walks of life in this explosive part of the world, art in all its forms is influenced by, and influences, what the locals euphemistically refer to as "the situation."

One need look no further than the Israeli and Palestinian film industries to see how much the troubles are reflected in artistic expression. However, in the cases of the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel's Tomb, the argument is much more about politicians of all colors using historical monuments as a way to score points over their rivals. And in the highly-charged Middle East, something as simple as that can easily lead to bloodshed.


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