Ornate and colorful paintings of olive trees line the walls, the aromas of olive oil, stuffed eggplant and bread waft through the air and vendors sell Nablus soaps, handmade embroideries and olive wood figures. Former Palestinian Authority prisoner affairs minister Ashraf al-Ajrami and former Israeli diplomat Ilan Baruch smile as guests arrive, encouraging them to enjoy the traditional food.
Ajrami and Baruch, an unexpected pair, have teamed up to build an unofficial Palestinian cultural embassy in Tel Aviv, the Palestine House, and tonight they are hosting an olive harvest festival at the Jaffa Art Salon.
“Our goal is to introduce the different elements of Palestinian culture to Israeli society,” Ajrami says on the sidelines of the festival. “We want to show Israeli society that Palestinians are normal people through art, food and literature.”
Baruch says that Israeli society, despite its close proximity to the Palestinians, knows little about Palestinian culture.
“We want Israelis, who pass by Route 6 and have no idea what is happening 100 m. away to come and learn,” he remarks.
While Ajrami and Baruch emphasize that the Palestine House holds no political positions, they ultimately want to send a political message.
“When an Israeli realizes that Palestinians love art, culture and civilization, he will be able to see Palestinians as human and enable us to move in the direction of a meaningful peace process,” Ajrami says.
Ajrami, who fought for the Palestine Liberation Organization against Israel in Lebanon and spent 12 years in prison, from 1984 until 1996, and Baruch, who served 36 years in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, met in Prague three years ago and realized that they shared the common interest of advancing peace through culture.
“We met a conference and we realized that we have the same dream,” Baruch says.
“Since then, we have been working on making this dream a reality and it’s gradually is taking form.”
The olive harvest festival is only one of many cultural events that the Palestine House has hosted in Tel Aviv and Jaffa this year. The group has also organized a Dabka performance, an exhibition of photos of mosques, churches and synagogues, an oud concert and a screening of a documentary film about Palestinians during the British Mandate period, as well as a number of other events.
The Palestine House publishes Anat, a quarterly magazine, featuring stories on Palestinian theater, literature, art and music. The most recent edition covered the annual Taybeh Beer Festival, an oud maker from Nablus and Ramadan lanterns.
Baruch and Ajrami say that the Israeli public has responded positively to the Palestine House.
“Israelis are very interested and want to invest in the Palestine House, but they first want to see it develop,” says Baruch.
The Palestine House runs on donations of $50,000 and $100,000 dollars from the Swedish and Dutch embassies, respectively.
The Tel Aviv Municipality has also welcomed the Palestine House and offered to lend its facilities.
At the olive harvest festival, visitors are perusing through the art gallery, but mainly huddling around the food, making labaneh, olive oil and za’atar sandwiches.
Miri Shaptai, a visitor from Shoham, came to the festival with a group of friends. “We all love the idea of bringing people closer together through eating labaneh, olive oil and pita,” Shaptai says. “We can connect through culture and food, one person to another.”
Sara Levy, a visitor from Haifa, stumbled upon the festival while walking through Jaffa. “I think this is an excellent initiative and I learned about the strong connection that Palestinians have to olives and everything made from them,” she says.
Ajrami says reactions to the Palestine House in Palestinian society have varied.
“After i24 news published a story on the Palestine House, some people said they like it and others criticized it,” says Ajrami. “That is very natural.”
Ajrami adds that the Palestine House does not participate in normalization.
“There are people who say that any peaceful relations with Israel is normalization.
We are not undertaking normalization; we are transmitting a message to the Israeli side,” he says. “Normalization is with official institutions and we are not working with them.
We want to reach the Israeli population through Palestinian culture.”
The General Coordinator for the Palestinian BDS National Committee Mahmoud Nawaja told Palestinian television in September that the Palestine House qualifies as “clear normalizing activity and part of the normalizing project that the occupation government funds and supports.”
Nonetheless, Ajrami and Baruch intend to continue their work and hope to acquire a space and hire permanent staff members.
“We want to have a physical location for the Palestine House, which will allow any Israeli citizen to get to know Palestine through it,” Ajrami says. “We want there to be a permanent exhibition and for the Palestine House to resemble the Palestinian embassy in Israel.”