El-Hakawati theatre struggles to survive

Friday 22/01/2016
Saved by the PA. Amer Khalil, director of the Palestinian National Theatre, known as El-Hakawati (The Storyteller) holds a court order outside the theatre in East Jerusalem, last November.

Jerusalem - After having amassed unpaid bills of about $150,000, the Palestin­ian National Theatre, El-Hakawati, was saved when the Palestinian Authority (PA) lent it money to stop Israel from shutting down East Jerusalem’s leading cultural institution and only theatre.

Arabic for “the storyteller”, El- Hakawati faced closure on Novem­ber 26th, when Artistic Director Amer Khalil received a phone call from the Israeli Enforcement and Collection Authority (ECA), respon­sible for debt collection and law en­forcement, notifying him that the theatre building will be seized and shut down in 48 hours.

The debt was owed to City Hall, the national insurance fund and the local Israeli electricity company. Two weeks before the phone call, ECA seized El-Hakawati’s bank ac­count.

To many, this may sound a stand­ard procedure, in which the state rightfully collects overdue debt, but analysts and activists accuse Is­rael of waging a covert war against Palestinian cultural institutions by levying hefty taxes and depriving them of services and fiscal support.

Activist Abir Kobty said the thea­tre faced Israeli closures more than 35 times since its establishment in 1984 in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem, signalling “a systematic attempt to shut down the theatre”.

East Jerusalem is disputed terri­tory that Israel seized from Jordan in the 1967 war, annexed it and de­clared it part of the indivisible and eternal capital of the Jewish state. However, no other country recog­nises Israeli sovereignty there and most expect its status to be deter­mined in negotiations between Pal­estinians and Israelis.

Jerusalem houses some of Islam’s holiest shrines, which makes the area highly sensitive to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims and a flashpoint that spurred Palestinian violence against Israel, the latest bout of which started on October 2nd over a Muslim shrine Palestinians suspect Israel wants to annex.

The Palestinian cultural scene has been shattered by decades of Israeli occupation and isolation by Arabs who refuse to mix with Israelis liv­ing among Palestinians. Israel is seen as using all means to toughen living conditions for Palestinians in Jerusalem to motivate them to leave.

B’Tselem, an Israeli information centre for human rights, said aside from physically isolating East Je­rusalem from the rest of the West Bank, Israel “unfairly divides the budget” between East and West Jerusalem resulting in “harmful ef­fects to infrastructure and services in East Jerusalem”. It did not give a breakdown.

However, Khalil said lack of fi­nancial support was a significant issue for El-Hakawati. “There is no question that Israel wants to shut down El-Hakawati” and often makes excuses to do so, he said. The theatre’s bills include 3 million shekels ($763,155) in Israeli taxes, Khalil said, and operating expenses amount to an additional $1,300 per day.

“Now it is El-Hakawati but it might be another institution very soon. Israel is emptying Jerusalem of its indigenous people and mak­ing it harder for anyone to access the city,” except Israelis and Jews, he said.

El-Hakawati began as a small troupe. It has hosted scores of Pal­estinian satirical plays, orchestra and dancing shows over the years. When the Palestine Liberation Or­ganisation (PLO) signed a frame­work of a peace deal with Israel known as the Oslo Accords in 1993, donor countries invested billions of dollars in Jerusalem and its Pales­tinian cultural sector, including the theatre.

The prosperity continued un­til 2000 when the second intifada broke out and the political situation deteriorated, most notably with the establishment of the separation wall that effectively separated East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.

Since then, donor support has gradually dropped due to political instability.

Jerusalem Affairs Minister Adnan al-Husseini said the PA paid 1 mil­lion shekels — $254,207 — to the theatre in 2015.

“When I first received a phone call that the theatre was at risk of being closed, I took a decision to provide the sum needed to stop the Israeli authorities closing the thea­tre,” he said.

Husseini confirmed that Palestin­ian President Mahmoud Abbas is working on a comprehensive plan for 2016 to help the theatre pay the entire debt and avoid similar finan­cial crises.

Khalil wondered when Palestin­ian institutions in Jerusalem would leave for a safer environment where they can function without fear of being targeted.

“We do not claim that the PA is not intervening to help, but if we are not offered steady financial support, culture in Jerusalem will disappear sooner or later,” Khalil explained.

“El-Hakawati must stay open. This place is our home and we won’t give it up even if we have to work for free again like we used to when we started El-Hakawati 32 years ago.”