The human lesson of Gaza

In Gaza, we felt a bond with the people; we saw an opportunity to engage with them regardless of political constraints.

Daniel Barenboim_311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Daniel Barenboim_311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After decades of social and political deadlock, the revolutionary events in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen over the past months, dubbed the “Arab Awakening,” have radically changed our view on the potential of the Middle East. Driven almost solely by a wellinformed, open-minded youth connected chiefly through online media, events have unfolded at an extraordinary pace, and shown us that even rigid and virtually unchangeable feudal structures can be shattered. It was in this spirit of hope that we set out on our mission to Gaza.
Apart from the political implications – the injustice and short-sightedness of the Israeli blockade which attributes collective guilt to a whole people – its most harrowing consequence is the detrimental effect on the Gazans’ quality of life. Yet my recent experience has convinced me that in spite of their often unbearable circumstances, many civilians in Gaza remain hopeful, active and keen to build a better and peaceful future. Not, in fact, unlike many Israelis.
The question, however, is how to establish contact between these people.
HISTORICALLY, GAZA has always been under foreign domination – first four centuries of Ottoman rule, followed by annexation by the British Empire, and lastly, Egyptian occupation. These successive periods have led to the population being completely cut off from the rest of the Palestinian people. In contrast, while the West Bank was under foreign domination by Jordan, its large Palestinian population meant there was a naturally closer contact between Palestinians in the West and East Banks than between the people of Gaza and their Egyptian neighbors. It is in large part because of these geopolitical specificities that the people of Gaza have displayed a stronger need for independence. Today, this need can only be satisfied with a sovereign Palestinian state.
The specific circumstances in Gaza have also contributed to the development of a young and vibrant civil society. Eighty five percent of the approximately 1.2 million people in Gaza are under 30, and in spite of the blockade, the Gazans have managed not only to build but to sustain 12 universities.
This young generation is highly educated, extremely well informed and very ambitious, and will therefore play an important role in the future of the region.
The primary purpose of our visit to Gaza was to express our solidarity with these people. Our mission was completely apolitical, and we had no direct exchange with the current political leadership. Neither did they attend the concert; the audience was made up of children and representatives of the civil society, in particular Palestinian NGOs. It had long been a wish of mine to visit Gaza in solidarity with the civilians there, as I consider their confinement one of the most disturbing aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I wanted to play a concert there to break the blockade, at least on a cultural level.
While previous attempts to realize such a concert had fallen short, recent events in Egypt meant there was a new avenue: a very problematic aspect of any visit to Gaza is always the border-crossing, and one of the post-revolutionary Egyptian leadership’s first directives had been to open the crossing at Rafah, which meant that we could enter Gaza from Egypt. The May 3 concert was held under the auspices of the UN (in particular UNRWA and UNSCO), but its realization was also due to close cooperation with the new Egyptian government. Once the logistics were clear, I took it upon myself to assemble one of the finest groups of musicians I have ever conducted: members of the Staatskapelle Berlin, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris and the Orchestra of La Scala di Milan agreed to join me in this project.
OUR ARRIVAL in Egypt on May 2 coincided with the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. While the concert was to be presented solely in cooperation with the United Nations and Palestinian NGOs, we had to rely on the cooperation of the Hamas leadership on security. I have experienced that in Arab culture, music is something to be enjoyed only on joyous occasions and indeed, as the events of May 2 unfolded, the Hamas leadership, having made an unacceptable statement about Bin Laden’s death, expressed grave concerns about allowing a concert only one day after he had been killed. Their worry that the radical Islamist factions would interpret the concert as a Hamas-tolerated celebration, when in fact it should be a day of mourning led to a near-cancellation. With the orchestra already in the Egyptian border town of El Arish, we spent a tense few hours until 1 a.m., when we finally received the green light that the concert would go ahead.
The concert itself, an all-Mozart program, took place in Gaza’s only national museum, “Al Mathaf” – a private house whose owner started a collection of historic artefacts found in Gaza during construction works. His ambition to create and preserve an historical narrative of Gaza while building a modern society is symptomatic of the positive dynamic we have encountered in Gaza. The 500-strong audience, over half of which were school children, greeted the musicians enthusiastically, and after the concert, I took the opportunity to explain why we had come: that we wanted to show them our solidarity, and that we believed in the ability of the civil society in Gaza to create a better future; that the mission to create a viable and independent Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 is just; and that any lasting solution to the conflict could only be achieved by peaceful means.
The Arab Spring has shown us that reform and development will originate from the people. In Gaza, we felt a bond with the people; we saw an opportunity to engage with them regardless of political constraints. The most important lesson for us must be, thus, that we can build bridges between peoples, and not rely on governments to do this. It will take too long for inter-governmental relations to develop when we can connect with the people in Gaza now. In the same vein, the civil societies of both Israel and Gaza can carefully begin to find common ground, even if, on a governmental level, a rapprochement seems still unthinkable.
Maybe the governments can one day tread the bridges the civil societies have built together.
My dream is to continue working in Gaza; to return there frequently, and to contribute to what I have experienced as a remarkable and dynamic civil society. One day, I hope to bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Gaza. It remains a sad fact that the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which has become a myth in many parts of the world, is unable to perform in precisely those countries which are represented in it.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is on tour in Europe from May 17–22, with performance in Milan (May 17), Rome (May 18), Vienna (May 20), Paris (May 21) and Berlin (May 22).
The writer is an Argentinian-born Israel pianist and conductor