The Genocide War on Gaza: Palestinian Culture and the Existential Struggle
Publication Year: 
Number of Pages: 

The paper focuses on the role played by Western donor countries after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 in weakening the resilience of Palestinian culture, by flooding it with funding, then withdrawing it progressively, and restricting it with conditions, in an attempt to subject the Palestinian generations to the culture of peace and the Oslo path, far from the culture of resistance and resilience associated with the reality of Palestinians in the occupied territories. When Israel launched its genocide war on Gaza, the role of the Palestinian cultural institution was weak, as was its resilience structure and programs. Ambiguity still surrounds the role of Palestinian culture in the upcoming period, in light of the heavy losses it incurred in Gaza with the martyrdom of dozens of artistic and literary creators and the destruction of cultural and artistic centers, workshops and libraries on the one hand, and the state of shock and paralysis that afflicted the cultural sector in the West Bank and the occupied territory, and the confusion and inability to transform reality into a platform for challenging the cultural siege imposed by Oslo and putting an end to it, on the other hand.

Oslo and the Illusion of Culture

The return of the Palestine Liberation Organization to occupied Palestine following the Oslo Accords in 1993 and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 opened a new chapter in the Palestinian struggle. The role that was played by small community and popular institutions, unions, and individuals in the occupied territories was reassigned to formal and informal institutions that were funded by the Palestinian Authority and donors. The Palestinian Authority pursued a neoliberal policy that enhanced individuality versus collective action, which led to the dissolution or weakening of trade unions and federations. The role played by the city of Jerusalem and other cities in 1948 occupied Palestine and their institutions in Palestinian culture also faded, as the center of cultural gravity moved to Ramallah, the city that received the lion’s share of foreign funding.

Oslo and the intervention of foreign funding contributed to curbing the prevailing cultural life and undermining its organic development. It was amputated again, after a first amputation following the Nakba. The culture that was domesticated by foreign funding was unable to carry out its critical role and rise in the face of the occupation from its position. It merely made an attempt at survival (rather than resilience) by sustaining its activities within the limits and policies that were drawn for it. It focused on topics that were not related to the reality of the occupation and the existential threat and on spending funds to the satisfaction of donors. Thus, the cultural life has moved away from the culture of resilience and resistance, despite the apparent abundant production. In this respect, Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh says: “The Palestine Liberation Organization succeeded in free falling into the post-colonial wheel when it turned into an ‘authority’, turning the page on ‘liberation’, without opening the ‘independence’ page. Between the two pages, which were not validated by a proper conclusion, the Palestinian Authority built its state illusion in happy Ramallah...”. He adds: “The Palestinian civil society has turned, for the most part, from a participatory role in the national anti-colonial movement into a manicured structure, coexisting with the colonial reality, and seeking, at best, to ‘dismantle’ (de-colonize) it through law, procedure, or architecture...”[1]

Meanwhile, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement set off from Palestine to the world. The academic and cultural boycott campaign was launched, joined by artists and academics from all over the world. It pressured for the cancellation of cultural performances and events in the occupying state, and also stood against cultural normalization through which Israel tried, with Western assistance, to polish its image in the world after Oslo.

After 2001, donors began to follow the example of the United States by putting conditions on aid, censoring terms used by cultural institutions in their publications, including the words “Nakba,” “colonialism,” “apartheid,” and “right of return,” and withholding funding for projects related to the promotion of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return, demanding that the geographical scope covered by institutions be narrowed to the territory occupied in 1967, and directing funding towards projects aimed at “conflict resolution” and “peace building”[2]. The European Union also followed the United States' lead in imposing conditional funding on Palestinian institutions, which led to most cultural institutions rejecting European funding in 2020, while others were forced to accept the conditions.

In 2019, German positions wilted and became more extreme against the Palestinians. A decision was taken to criminalize dealing with the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in Germany. This led to accusations of anti-Semitism being made against those working in the field of culture to advocate for Palestinian rights, which silenced many voices.

Over the past two decades, foreign funding has gradually withdrawn from the cultural field, leading to the concentration of its funds in a few large, active institutions, which has caused the atrophy of many small cultural institutions and popular community initiatives[3]. In this context, Tariq Dana says: “The largest and most influential segment of civil society continues to rely on international aid that is largely politically and ideologically conditional, imposing many restrictions on the work of civil society actors”. He added that the hegemony of this segment “has depoliticized social sectors and led to the emergence of a new elite alienated from its surroundings, squandering millions on useless projects.” Instead of Palestinian civil society being “an arena for resistance and mobilization against fragmentation, it has become part of the fragmentation itself”[4].

October 2023 War

The genocidal war on Gaza on October 7, 2023, followed two years in which a large number of martyrs fell in the Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus camps on an almost daily basis. The number of prisoners in occupation prisons increased and the restrictions on them worsened. As for artistic and cultural institutions, they were busy holding archival exhibitions, organizing poetry readings, receiving and handing out prizes, singing praises of the folkloric cultural heritage and legacy, and wasting money producing expensive publications that ended up in garbage cans. Many institutions used the English language, -the language of donors-, to address their audiences. As for Gaza, it rarely had a share in the programs of these institutions. It was given a slight margin, or was overlooked in most of their activities.

The conditions imposed by the European Union on Palestinian institutions before the war on Gaza were not sufficient. Merely two days after the declaration of war, the President of the European Commission, the largest supporter of the Palestinians, stressed the necessity of reconsidering financial aid to the Palestinians in light of the events of October 7, announcing the insertion of more contractual terms related to “countering incitement,” including with UNRWA, in case a decision was made to continue partnering with Palestinian institutions[5].

A group of Palestinian NGOs, including cultural institutions, responded by stating that “the international financing system is a tool in the hands of colonial hegemony in our region, that the aid system is being used as a weapon to bring the Palestinians to their knees... and that this policy is an integral part of the Oslo doctrine and control systems imposed on us to maintain the security of the occupation.” They pointed out that the duty of organizations today is to “build a system of community solidarity and grassroots action networks, believe in the capabilities and potential of families and youth, remain alert to the hegemony of foreign funding, and deal with international institutions on the basis of full equality”[6]. While these institutions announced their intention to disengage from foreign aid, in reality, very few of them took practical steps.

As the first months of the war successively unraveled, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture issued three reports on the losses in the Gaza Strip in the cultural field. The brutal Israeli bombing affected the lives of 41 artists, writers, musicians, poets and activists, men and women, in the field of culture[7], including the following artists: Mohammed Sami, Heba Zagout, Nismah Abu Shaira, Halima Al-Kahlot, and Mohammed Qraiqea, poets Refaat Alareer, Saleem Al-Naffar, Hiba Abu Nada, Mariam Hegazy and Nur Al-Din Hajjaj, journalist writers Mostafa Al-Sawaf and Abdullah Al-Akkad, photographer Marwan Tarzi, and guitarist Yousif Aldawas. Many also lost their entire families, and many more were seriously injured. Their homes, neighborhoods, workshops, and productions were also destroyed. Cultural centers were completely demolished, including the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center established in Gaza in 1985, and artistic institutions, such as Shababik Gallery and the Faculty of Arts at Al-Aqsa University. While some institutions were partially destroyed, such as Eltiqa Gallery, -with all its artworks damaged, - Al Sununu for Culture and Arts Association, which deals with music and included hundreds of musical instruments, and the Gaza Association for Culture and Arts, which was holding the “Red Carpet Film Festival,” were destroyed. Public libraries were also destroyed, including Gaza Municipality’s public library, which contains thousands of books, and Samir Mansour Bookshop, which contains thousands of titles – it was bombed in 2021 then rebuilt-, in addition to universities, archaeological sites, and archives. The house of artist Taysir Batniji was destroyed in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood in Gaza City, and a large number of his family were martyred. He lost many of his works that he had completed in an early period. Artist Fathi Ghaben lost his son, his house, his studio, and his works. He suffered as a result of the deterioration of his health condition. Artists Mohammed Joha and Hazem Harb also lost members of their families. We saw artist Basel El-Maqosui on social media trying to hide his artwork by wrapping it in blankets and placing it under a table before his displacement. As for artist Maysara Baroud, not only did he lose his home, but also his studio and all of his artwork. The account of the fate of artists, writers, and cultural workers is still incomplete in light of the continuing destruction and scarcity of information.

As a direct result of the war, some institutions sought to document and stimulate debate on a number of topics. The Institute for Palestine Studies issued a Special Issue (No. 137) of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya under the title “Salute to Gaza” with the participation of 60 writers “as a historical document and collective testimony to Palestine’s major event.” Its online platform was active in publishing through “Filistin Almaydan” blog, with a large number of penholders, including direct testimonies from Gaza, in addition to discussion panels, videos, and policy papers. “Fasha Taqafiya” magazine was also active in publishing, organizing discussion panels, and producing “podcast” episodes, despite the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian territory. Birzeit University held a group of weekly seminars to shed light on different aspects of the war.

One of the most prominent events organized at this time is “This Is Not An Exhibition” at the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit, which brought together under its roof a large collection of works by artists from Gaza held by collectors in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and other Palestinian cities, in addition to the “Missing People” exhibition by Gazan artist Tayseer Barakat. The Palestinian Ministry of Culture has documented the damage to the culture sector in Gaza in three reports issued since the beginning of the war, in addition to a book of testimonies from Gaza, entitled: “Writing Behind the Lines.”

As for the voice of the occupied Palestinian territory, it has been suppressed since the beginning of the war. No demonstrations or protests were observed as was the case in the Uprising of Dignity events in 2021. Since the beginning of the war, the Israeli occupation authorities have arrested a number of figures and cultural symbols who dared to stand publicly against the war on Gaza on social media, such as artist Dalal Abu Amneh, actress Maisa Abd Elhadi, and other activists and influencers, in an attempt to silence the crowd. Palestinian students in Israeli universities were also subjected to physical and verbal threats and persecution. Israeli higher education institutions announced that they would not tolerate any publications that incite “terrorism”. Education Minister Yoav Kisch called for disciplinary measures against violating students[8]. Organized campaigns were launched against university professors, as in the case of Professor Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian. Despite the repressive practices against journalists, a group of cultural media outlets at home continued to cover the war on Gaza, and a series of activities were organized, - while being careful not to mention Gaza directly-, in addition to a conference attended by 18 researchers, poets, and writers, which was held in Haifa in mid-December, in cooperation between Mada Al-Carmel and the Arab Culture Association in Haifa[9].

The Israeli aggression revealed the racism of Western cultural and artistic institutions and their largely subservience to the desires of politicians and donors. At the same time, groups of artists and cultural actors in the world became active in an unprecedented manner to support Gaza and put pressure on Western artistic and cultural institutions, including the “Decolonize This Place” group in the United States, which organized protests in museums and art institutions that remained silent throughout the war, including demonstrations at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Hundreds of demonstrators participated. They demanded that the institution break its silence and expel board members involved in supporting the genocidal war in Gaza. The "Strike Germany" group also contributed to launching a campaign in the Western cultural community, calling for a boycott of German cultural institutions, specifically for their biased positions towards Israel, and for a change in their positions before re-engaging with them. A series of cultural activities in solidarity with Palestine were also held in various places, most notably an art exhibition organized by activists in the municipality of Barcelona in Spain, with Palestinian participation. A large number of artists signed a petition denouncing the barbaric Israeli aggression on Gaza and demanding a ceasefire. A number of celebrities from Hollywood also stood against the Israeli war on Gaza through public demonstrations and solidarity action, including Susan Sarandon, Cynthia Nixon and others, something that Hollywood actors would not have dared to do in the past for fear of the Zionist lobby[10].

On the other hand, a number of Palestinian artists were subjected to exclusion at the global level. The participation of artist Emily Jacir in a workshop at a university in Berlin was cancelled, a lecture by artist Jumana Manna at the Wexner Museum in Ohio was called off, and the retrospective exhibition of artist Samia Halaby at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University in the United States of America was cancelled following three years of preparation. Many artists and cultural actors in the world were excluded as a result of their opinions on social media, including international Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose exhibition at Lisson Gallery in London was canceled after lengthy preparations and shortly before the opening. Likewise, the tenth edition of Biennale für aktuelle Fotografiee was called off in Germany over the pro-Palestinian stances of its curator. Wanda Nanibush, an indigenous curator in Canada, was fired from the Art Gallery of Ontario for her activity on social media due to pressure from the Israel Museums and Arts - Canada. The Whitney Museum of American Art aroused the ire of American student groups that signed a petition against the Israeli aggression on Gaza, when American billionaire Ken Griffin, one of the museum's major backers, said that pro-Palestinian students should be blacklisted by their universities. An angry student march then headed toward the museum and flooded its entrance with red paint. The editor of the well-known art magazine "Artforum", David Velasco, was fired after he published a statement of solidarity with the Palestinians, signed by a large number of artists, in which they called for a ceasefire in Gaza. The next day, the magazine published a letter condemning the “unbalanced” statement it published. Behind the scenes, the wealthy American art collector Martin Eisenberg put pressure on some of the signing artists whose works he owned, which led them to withdrawing their signatures from the statement[11].

Palestinians in the Area of Culture

Edward Said spoke of “the intellectual having to remain faithful to the right standards of human misery and persecution, despite their party affiliation, national background, and innate loyalties,” and said that “nothing distorts the public performance of an intellectual more than changing opinions depending on circumstances, observing cautious silence, and patriotic swagger...”[12]. But the genocidal war on Gaza revealed the fragility of the cultural structure in Palestine, its weakness, its existence associated with foreign funding and partisan biases, its distance from its foster community, its fragmentation and loss of compass, specifically with regard to collective work towards a national liberation project. While many intellectuals remained silent and went into hiding, institutions suspended most of their programs without offering an alternative that kept pace with the events and instilled a spirit of resilience in their audiences, without seeking to network with global solidarity movements, for example, for the sake of role complementarity.

The reaction of Palestinian culture, with its official and unofficial activities and institutions, in the midst of this unexpected and unprecedented attack, was extremely weak. A shock was felt, and the cultural field was paralyzed, revealing a lack of vision. Its main message was to prolong its life under the same Oslo conditions that led to this perdition. While art students at the Bezalel Academy of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, for example, engaged in sewing and weaving belts for the occupation soldiers who were exterminating the people of Gaza, the Palestinian students in the same college stood in a state of loss and lack of vision. They were not pulled by a Palestinian university, for example, and there was no project to guide their efforts towards a specific goal.

In conclusion, it must be said that the duty of any Palestinian intellectual, today more than ever, is to put aside their party affiliations and narrow interests, look to the future, and find their role and stance. This statement applies even more to Palestinian cultural institutions and levers of an official, semi-official, and popular nature. The time has come to unify efforts and respond to the existential threat through a clear vision and practical steps that serve as the nucleus for a “new type of resurrection.” The days of the Oslo illusion are politically and culturally over. This is a new and decisive phase that requires a unified front... The question is simply to be or not to be.



[1] Abdul-Rahim Al-Shaikh, “The Happy Cemetery,” “Al-Adab,” 12/30/2019.

[2]Position Paper: Conditional EU Funding: Lack of Legitimacy and Political Implications”, Badil - Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, 2020.

[3] Tariq Dana, “Criminalizing Palestinian Resistance: The European Union’s Additional Condition on Aid to Palestine,” Al-Shabaka, 2/2/2020.

[4] Ibid.

[5] European Commission, “The Commission finalises the review of EU aid to Palestine”.

[6] Statement on the position of Palestinian institutions in response to our threat to cut off foreign funding, 10/16/2023.

[7] The Palestinian Ministry of Culture, “The Ministry of Culture issues the third monthly report to monitor the impact of the Israeli aggression on the cultural sector in Gaza” (October 7, 2023 - January 7, 2024).

[8] Ali Muwasi, “Components of Latency: 1948 Palestinians and the Israeli War on Gaza”, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, Issue 137 (Winter 2024).

[9] ibid.

[10] David Smith, “People are being penalized: Hollywood divided over Israel-Hamas conflict”, The Guardian, 2/12/2023.

[11] Rana Anani, “Gaza: The visual attempt that defies being reduced to silence, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, Issue 137 (winter 2024).

[12] Edward Said, “Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures,” translated by Ghassan Ghosn (Beirut: Dar Al-Nahar, 1996), p. 14.

Author Bio: 

Rana Anani: A writer and researcher on visual arts and culture from Ramallah and editor of the website of the Institute for Palestine Studies.