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The Murder of Yasser Arafat: "Powerful" - The Times of London

Thursday, 27 April 2006

Israeli barrier draws artists to a cause

The concrete portion of Israel’s West Bank security barrier has become an inviting canvas for artists from around the world who sympathize with the Palestinians. Above, a mural by a foreign artist near the Bethlehem checkpoint.
The concrete portion of Israel’s West Bank security barrier has become an inviting canvas for artists from around the world who sympathize with the Palestinians. Above, a mural by a foreign artist near the Bethlehem checkpoint. (David Blumenfeld for the Boston Globe)

Many Palestinians object to paintings as disguising reality

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- For Israelis, the 451-mile security barrier snaking through the West Bank has been highly effective in keeping out would-be suicide bombers. For Palestinians, it's an ugly symbol of Israeli control over every aspect of their lives.

For European artists who sympathize with the Palestinian cause, the concrete urban portion of the barrier has become the world's most inviting canvas. Some Palestinians say they appreciate that artistic support. But many Palestinian artists have expressed outrage, saying the art disguises the reality of the wall.

Most of the barrier is being built through the wilderness close to the Green Line, the old West Bank border between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 Six-Day War. On those isolated hills, the barrier is a see-through fence equipped with electronic sensors, topped with barbed wire and flanked by an anti-tank ditch.

The five percent of the barrier that passes between houses in urban areas is a much narrower and starker 30-foot-high, gray cement wall. It has been daubed with slogans, posters, and even advertisements by local shopkeepers. But it is the eye-catching paintings adorning these sections of the barrier that have ignited a sharp debate.

Tayseer Barakat, curator of the Ziryab Gallery in Ramallah and founder of the League of Palestinian Artists, organized ''3 Cities Against the Wall" -- an international exhibition involving artists in New York, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv, as a protest against the barrier. Barakat said he was fiercely opposed to anyone attempting to hide the ugliness of the concrete slabs. ''The wall should be torn down, not made to be beautiful," he said.

On the northern edge of Bethlehem, on the road that used to lead to Jerusalem, the wall looms darkly over the Al-Aida refugee camp, and is covered in graffiti. Rounding one corner, two huge empty armchairs suddenly appear on the wall, with a pastoral scene of snow-covered mountains on the wall between them.

''When I see these two chairs, I understand there is no one sitting there to talk about our situation, on both sides. There is a very beautiful place through the window, but we can't see it because of the wall," said Mohammed Fathi, a local souvenir salesman. ''We don't have many visitors these days, but they all come here to see the wall. It's become like a place of pilgrimage."

The painting is the work of Banksy, the pen-name for the anonymous, radical British graffiti artist, who came to the area in August to paint nine thought-provoking illustrations on the wall. One shows a ladder providing an escape route; others appear to depict dreamlike scenery of tropical islands and rolling European countryside beyond the wall. Another shows a silhouette of a girl holding a bunch of balloons, apparently rising gently to freedom.

Returning to Britain, Banksy recorded on his website a conversation with an elderly Palestinian who told the artist his painting made the wall beautiful. But when Banksy thanked him, the old man chided him: ''We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home."

Catherine Yass, a British artist who was a finalist for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2002, came to the Sakakini Arts Center in Ramallah earlier this year for the opening of her film ''Wall" -- a video installation tracking the Israeli barrier between Jerusalem and Abu Dis in silence.

''When I first saw the wall I had a very immediate reaction, and I felt like I was both blinded and made dumb," said Yass. ''It does not tell you the history or the context, it tells you more about the visceral effect, a gut reaction."

Yass said the wall had not contributed to Israeli security but instead symbolized a form of oppression for which, as a Jewish artist, she felt partly responsible.

''The wall almost looks like a modernist sculpture from the 1970s," she said. ''It's very disturbing that something as oppressive as the wall can have the aesthetics of modernism."

The Israeli side of the wall features little artwork but a lot of graffiti from opponents of the barrier. In March 2004 an Israeli fashion house, Comme il Faut, launched its summer catalogue with a fashion parade in the shadow of the concrete slabs that owner Sybil Goldfinger said was designed to ''raise awareness." Many Palestinians were appalled.

The Israelis say the barrier helped reduce the number of deaths from Palestinian suicide attacks inside Israel from 144 in 2003 to none this year, until a suicide bomber blew himself up in Tel Aviv on April 17, killing nine and injuring more than 60. Palestinians fear that the barrier, which at points cuts deep into West Bank land that Palestinians consider theirs, will be a unilaterally imposed border for any future independent state.

Fatin Farhat, director of culture at the Sakakini Center, said almost all the art -- as opposed to graffiti -- has been painted by foreigners. She said she had met dozens of foreign artists who wanted to use the wall as a canvas and she always tried to dissuade them.

''My main fear is the institutionalization of the wall," said Farhat. ''I get tens of artists every day who want to work on the wall. I say, 'Look, the Palestinian experience is not only identified by the wall.' Nonetheless, I know that the wall is the epitome of the siege, so it's easier to work with because it's solid, it's there, it's concrete, it's big."

Veteran Palestinian political cartoonist Baha Boukhari uses the wall almost daily in his newspaper cartoons -- crushing the dove of peace, or as a nightmarish, endless maze. But he said he rarely went near the barrier in his hometown of Ramallah, because he found it so depressing.

''I do not encourage people to paint it, to use it as a canvas," Boukhari said. ''I am against that. Leave it to show that it is very ugly. I don't like it to be nice. I like it to be in a very ugly, dirty, not acceptable for any normal person."

But Steve Sabella, a Palestinian artist and photographer living on the Israeli side of the barrier in East Jerusalem, said the protest art should be welcomed. Sabella curated an exhibition by photographer Andrea Merli in Italy about the wall, including its copious images and graffiti.

He recalled that when Israel erected similar concrete block walls in 2000 to shield the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from shooting attacks by Palestinian gunmen in the Al-Aida refugee camp, Israeli residents turned it into a trompe l'oeil, painting on it the pastoral scenery -- including the Arab villages -- now hidden from view.

''Who said that art was always about aesthetics and beauty?" he asked. ''Art could be ugly . . . An artist can be an activist, trying to give the world a new truth."

Tuesday, 25 April 2006

Bombings rock Egypt; 30 killed

Local extremists loosely connected to bin Laden eyed

JERUSALEM -- Coordinated bombings of three sites in the Egyptian holiday resort of Dahab last night killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 100, authorities said. It was the third deadly attack against tourist targets in the Sinai region in the last 18 months.

The three blasts in the Red Sea resort occurred almost simultaneously shortly after 7 p.m. local time. At least 20 people were reported killed in the el-Mashrabiyah Hotel, where a device apparently exploded in the hotel restaurant.

Other bombs exploded in a nearby supermarket and in a cafeteria.

Egyptian and Israeli analysts said the attacks bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, which had struck using similar methods in the region. Egyptian security officials said the blasts appear to have involved sophisticated devices detonated by remote control, and not by suicide bombers.

''I heard three explosions within five minutes, one after another," witness Ahmad Samir told an Arab-language television network. ''The explosions were only about 50 meters from each other. The police came with their sirens blaring. People carried the wounded to the hospital. People were in panic."

Imad Ashmawi, who owns a hotel, said the carnage in the street was shocking.

''I was in the hotel and I heard three explosions," Ashmawi said in a TV interview. ''I went out and saw people dead and wounded lying on the ground. I helped the police take the wounded to the hospital. It was a terrible sight. You can imagine it. There were bodies and limbs scattered everywhere."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, condemned the explosions.

''The president stressed the need to . . . track down those responsible for this wicked terrorist act, so that they pay the penalty by force of law," said the official Egyptian news agency MENA.

The attack came in the middle of a five-day Egyptian holiday following a weekend of Easter celebrations by the Greek Orthodox, the largest Christian group in the region. Dahab was full of local tourists and visitors from Europe.

It was the third time in the past 18 months that the Sinai peninsula has been targeted by terrorists. A total of 32 people were killed in October 2004 when suicide bombers drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the Hilton Hotel at Taba, near the Israeli border, and detonated another bomb at the nearby resort of Ras A-Satan. Another 88 people were killed in July 2005 in coordinated suicide bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the peninsula.

Suspicion immediately fell on Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the two previous attacks.

One Egyptian analyst said it was probably the work of local Islamic extremists loosely connected to Osama bin Laden, who had warned in a new audio tape released on Sunday of a long war with what he called a Crusader-Zionist campaign against Islam.

''I believe this is the work of small local cells connected with Al Qaeda," Amr Shoubaki, an expert on Islamist groups at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo, said in a television interview.

''Their goal is to damage the Egyptian economy and to express anger and frustration at the arrest by the Egyptian authorities of 4,000 people since the attacks in Taba and Sharm el Sheikh," Shoubaki said. ''There is a mushrooming of cells in Sinai. Their main goal is revenge."

Egypt relies heavily on foreign tourism and is one of the world's most popular holiday destinations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his family have taken their Christmas vacation in Sharm el-Sheikh for the past four years.

The Egyptian tourism industry was badly hit when Islamic terrorists opened fire on a group of foreign holidaymakers in Luxor in November 1997, killing 71 people, but had shown signs of recovery.

The latest bombings came only five days after Egyptian authorities announced the dramatic discovery and arrest of a large Islamic terror cell.

''Security forces recently arrested 22 people who were active in the secret organization called al-Taifa al-Mansur [The Victorious Sect]. The terror activists were arrested in various neighborhoods in Cairo and south of the Egyptian capital," the Egyptian interior ministry announced in a statement broadcast April 19 on state television.

''The accused planned to carry out terrorist operations against tourism sites, a strike against the natural gas pipeline around Cairo, and other sensitive sites through the placing of devices. They also examined the possibility of striking Muslim religious figures and Copts, as well as youths in entertainment districts. The heads of the organizations communicated with foreign elements in order to train activists abroad," said the statement.

Israeli military analyst Zeev Schiff, writing on the website of the Hebrew-language daily Haaretz, said yesterday's attacks illustrated Egypt's failure to halt Al Qaeda activity in the Sinai wilderness.

''The radical Islamic terror organization clearly continues to operate adjacent to the border with Israel," wrote Schiff. ''It also smuggles explosive material from the same area. It emerged recently that Al-Qaeda is also trying to set up a base in the Gaza Strip so as to infiltrate from there into Israel to carry out attacks."

Shalom Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Egypt, said there were no Israelis among the dead, probably because the blasts came several days after the end of the Passover holiday, when an estimated 25,000 Israeli tourists traveled to Sinai despite previous attacks and a stark warning from Danny Arditi, head of the Israeli Government Counter-Terrorism Bureau, that there was intelligence indicating impending attacks or kidnappings.

''The warnings in our hands lead to small organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda in one way or another," Arditi told the Israeli news website Ynet. ''A month ago we issued a travel warning to Israelis against traveling to Egypt, including Sinai, following relatively reliable intelligence on intentions to carry out terror attacks against foreign and Israeli tourists."

Following the blasts, emergency services in the Israeli resort of Eilat were placed on alert and the border with Egypt was closed. Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert telephoned Mubarak to express condolences and offer logistical support.

Sunday, 23 April 2006

Barrier-wall art divides Palestinians

Most want structure to remain ugly symbol of strife, oppression

San Francisco Chronicle
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Bethlehem, West Bank -- On the northern edge of Bethlehem, on the road that once led to Jerusalem, a wall of tall cement blocks looms darkly over the Al-Aida refugee camp. Much of it is covered in graffiti, but around one corner two huge, empty two-dimensional armchairs suddenly appear, with a pastoral scene of snow-covered mountains on view in the window between them.

"When I see these two chairs, I understand there is no one sitting there to talk about our situation, on both sides," Mohammed Fathi, a local souvenir salesman said of the painting. "There is a very beautiful place through the window, but we can't see it because of the wall."

For Palestinians, the 451-mile-long security barrier snaking through the West Bank is an ugly symbol of everything they hate about the Israelis.

For Israelis, it's the most effective way they have yet discovered to protect themselves from the wave of suicide bombings that has marked the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Monday's deadly Islamic Jihad attack at a Tel Aviv fast-food stall, in which the bomber and nine others were killed, was the first suicide bombing to kill Israelis on their side of the barrier in 2006. In all of 2003, before the barrier was begun, there were 144 deaths.

But for many artists, it has become the world's most inviting canvas.

The eye-catching paintings that adorn some sections of the barrier have ignited a sharp debate among Palestinian artists. Tayseer Barakat, curator of the Ziryab Gallery in Ramallah and founder of the League of Palestinian Artists, said he was fiercely opposed to anyone attempting to hide the ugliness of the barrier.

"The wall should be torn down, not made to be beautiful," he said.

In November, Barakat organized "3 Cities Against the Wall" -- an international exhibition in New York, Ramallah and Tel Aviv involving dozens of Palestinian, Israeli, American and European artists protesting the existence of the barrier (www.3citiesagainstthewall.net).

Most of the barrier is being built through the wilderness close to the Green Line, the old West Bank border between Israel and Jordan before the 1967 Six Day War. Across isolated hills, the route is delineated by a chain-link fence equipped with electronic sensors and topped with barbed wire. Running alongside is a 50-yard-wide "exclusion zone" with an anti-tank ditch, patrol roads and more barbed wire.

The 5 percent of the length that passes between houses in urban areas is a narrower, starker 30-foot-high gray cement wall that has been daubed with slogans, posters, even advertisements for local shops.

The painting of the two chairs flanking the window is the work of the radical British graffiti artist who goes by the name Banksy, who came to the West Bank in August to paint nine thought-provoking illustrations on the wall. One shows a ladder providing an escape route. Others appear to depict dreamlike scenery of tropical islands and rolling European countryside beyond the wall. Another shows a silhouette of a girl holding a bunch of balloons, apparently rising gently to freedom.

Returning to Britain, Banksy recorded on his Web site (www.banksy.co.uk) a conversation with an elderly Palestinian who told the artist his paintings made the wall beautiful. But when Banksy thanked him, the old man responded: "We don't want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home."

Fathi, the souvenir salesman, also was concerned with the international infatuation with the barrier. "I used to sell my bead necklaces by the Church of the Nativity. We don't have many visitors these days, but they all come here to see the wall. It's become like a place of pilgrimage," he said.

Catherine Yass, a British artist who was short-listed for the prestigious Turner Prize in 2002, came to the Sakakini Arts Center in Ramallah earlier this year for the opening of her film "Wall" -- a video installation tracking about half a mile on the Israeli side of the barrier between Jerusalem and Abu Dis, in haunting silence.

"When I first saw the wall, I had a very immediate reaction, and I felt like I was both blinded and made dumb," Yass said. "It does not tell you the history or the context, it tells you more about the visceral effect, a gut reaction."

Yass said she did not believe the wall had contributed to Israeli security, but instead symbolized a form of oppression for which, as a Jew, she said she felt partly responsible.

"The wall almost looks like a modernist sculpture from the 1970s," she said. "It's very disturbing that something as oppressive as the wall can have the aesthetics of modernism."

Fatin Farhat, director of culture at the Sakakini Center, said almost all the art -- as opposed to the graffiti -- on the wall has been painted by foreigners. She said she had met dozens of foreign artists who wanted to use the wall as a canvas, and she always tried to dissuade them.

"My main fear is the institutionalization of the wall," said Farhat. "I get tens of artists every day who want to work on the wall. I say, 'Look, the Palestinian experience is not only identified by the wall.' Nonetheless, I know that the wall is the epitome of the siege, so it's easier to work with because it's solid, it's there, it's concrete, it's big. So many artists find it much easier than to deal with more complex issues that have to do with Palestinian society."

"Leave it ugly and terrible and call for its demolition -- definitely, definitely," she said. "The only future I see for the wall is for it to be demolished."

Veteran Palestinian political cartoonist Baha Boukhari uses the wall almost daily in his newspaper cartoons -- crushing the dove of peace, for example, or as a nightmarish, endless maze. But he admitted he rarely went near the wall in his hometown of Ramallah, because he found it so depressing. He said he would never paint on it and objected to its use by artists.

"I do not encourage people to paint it, to use it as a canvas," Boukhari said. "I am against that. Leave it to show that it is very ugly. I don't like it to be nice. I like it to be in a very ugly, dirty, not acceptable for any normal person. ... Whether they paint it or leave it as it is, I just want this wall to be removed."

But Steve Sabella, a Palestinian artist and photographer living on the Israeli side of the barrier in East Jerusalem, said the protest art should be welcomed. Sabella curated an Italian exhibition about the wall by photographer Andrea Merli, including its copious images and graffiti.

He recalled that when Israel erected concrete-block walls in 2000 to shield the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo from shooting attacks by Palestinian gunmen in the Al-Aida refugee camp, Israeli residents immediately turned it into a trompe l'oeil, painting on it the pastoral scenery -- including the Arab villages -- now hidden from view.

The artists "are not painting like the Israelis are doing," Sabella said. "I see it as a giant ugly canvas."

"Who said that art was always about aesthetics and beauty?" he asked. "Art could be ugly. There is this feeling that art is about aesthetics, about beauty. But I don't think so. Art has many purposes and the artist has many roles in life. An artist can be an activist, trying to give the world a new truth, to show the world something they don't know about. I agree. Paint on the f -- wall."