Every few years, a dance troupe comprised of boys and girls in their early teens from the Deheishe refugee camp in the West Bank, embarks on a tour of the United States and Europe. These child dancers, performing under the auspices of the Ibdaa Cultural Center, have, in some quarters become the symbol of innocent Palestinian suffering. For example, the Mennonite Central Committee used footage of the troupe in its 2005 movie Children of the Nakba to highlight the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict on Palestinian children. As the Ibdaa troupe dances on stage in the opening scene of the video, a narrator describes the scene as follows:
Children from the Deheishe Refugee Camp in Bethlehem tell their story through traditional dance and music. The story retells how Palestinians were forced out of their villages by the Israeli military in 1948, how they have struggled to return to their homes and villages, and how they have risen up to shake off military occupation. The children perform this dance around the world. They want the world to know about their pain and feel their yearning to return home.
The dance troupe has received similar laudatory coverage from local newspapers publicizing its performances in the U.S. On July 11, 2003, The Sacramento Bee (California) published an article titled Palestinian dance troupe offers message of hope. Written by Fahiza Alim, a staff writer for the Bee, the article describes the Ibdaa troupe as a group of children who perform dances of history, protest and hope.
That same day, Jonathan Curiel of The San Francisco Chronicle reported that one of the troupe's dancers described the Ibdaa Cultural Center as encouraging teenagers to channel their energy into poetry, music, dance and other creative outlets not stone-throwing or suicide bombings.
The Ibdaa Cultural Center's Facebook page states the center's mission is to provide a safe environment for the camp's children, youth and women, to develop a range of skills, creatively express themselves, and build leadership through cultural, educational and social activities that are not readily available in either the camp or occupied Palestine. Ibdaa strives to empower participants with the confidence to face their difficult future, while educating the international community about Palestinian refugees.
In light of all this publicity, the Ibdaa Cultural Center seems something akin to a Boys and Girls Club or the local YMCA or YWCA in the U.S.
There's a fly in the ointment, however.
A recent visit to the Ibdaa Cultural Center reveals that the institution gives prominent display to images that demonize Israel and valorize acts of violence. The images are located in plain sight, in the public areas of the building the stairwell and the restaurant/coffee shop. For example, one mural located in the center's stairwell valorizes a woman throwing a stone and another in the same stairwell depicts a young man launching a Molotov cocktail with a slingshot in particularly heroic terms.
These images can be seen in photos taken on June 16, 2011.
CAMERA has obtained a translation of the Arabic in this image. It states "But ... the enemy of the sun/I'm not going to compromise/To the last pulse in my veins." (The last word is indecipherable.)
The text of this image has been translated to read "Enough God/God ... the desire is killing me/We can't wait any longer."
The walls of the cafeteria display other images that demonize Israel. For example, across the hallway from the restroom hangs a poster of a hand squeezing an orange into a cup shaped like the Star of David.
This poster can also be seen on the online website Palestinian Poster Archives, which includes the following curator's note:
[T]he hand in this image is squeezing an orange which has a label marked "Jaffa". The juice is dripping down into a mold in the shape of a Star of David and forming into a cityscape, most likely that of Tel Aviv. The inference is that the orange cultivation and industry, originally established by Palestinians, has been mobilized to advance the building of the Jewish state.
Another painting on display depicts two children, a boy and a girl, reaching for a scrap of food on the ground (a banana peel?). The girl is being dragged away by her pigtails by a soldier. Given the context, the intent is to demonize Israeli soldiers.
Taken together, these images incite hostility toward Israel and valorize people who have engaged in acts of violence in the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This contradicts the stated goals of the Ibdaa Cultural Center. Rather than giving the young people living in Deheishe refugee camp an alternative to hostility and violence, the center is allowing its public spaces to be used to encourage acts of violence and demonize Israel. The images undermine the prospects for peace by promoting a sense of grievance and hostility toward Israel and by portraying those who engage in violence as heroes.
To underscore the incongruity, next to the Ibdaa Cultural Center's entrance there is a plaque that displays an excerpt of UN Resolution 194 in both Arabic and English that states refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date
There is nothing peaceful or concilatory about the images inside the building, however. Given the context, displaying images such as this at the Ibdaa Cultural Center makes about as much sense as displaying handguns and drug paraphernalia on the walls of teen centers in the U.S.
In sum, the story is this: The Ibdaa Cultural Center, an institution that receives funds from the Middle East Children's Alliance, a non-profit in the U.S., and which has been lionized by journalists and peace activists in the West, is exposing the youth of a Palestinian refugee camp to anti-Israel incitement.
UNRWA Does Not Police Ibdaa
CAMERA has contacted officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and inquired about the images on display at the center. Commenting on background, UNRWA officials stated that the agency does not have the authority or resources necessary to police the behavior at non-UNWRA facilities (such as the Ibdaa Cultural Center) in the refugee camps.
Several important questions remain, however.
Who painted the murals in the stairwell and in the cafeteria? Children?
Why does the center choose to allow its walls to be used to incite violence and valorize acts of violence against Israel?
Is this the message that the Ibdaa Cultural Center is sending to the youth it serves?
How long have these images been on display at the Ibdaa Cultural Center? A search for previous versions of the center's website at archive.org internet search indicates that at least one image has been present since at least 2003, toward the end of the Second Intifada.
Has UNRWA communicated any displeasure over the display of these images to the leaders of the Ibdaa Cultural Center? While the organization does not have any direct authority over the Ibdaa Cultural Center, it is impossible to believe that UNRWA does not have at least some influence over the operations of the center.
Have Ibdaa's donors (such as the Middle East Children's Alliance) complained about these images?
CAMERA has sent an email to addresses posted on the Ibdaa Center's Facebook page and will post any relevant responses provided.
And, as always, where are media organizations, such as the New York Times, to report on the propagation of such anti-Israel sentiment?
Photo Credit: All photos Dexter Van Zile.