East Jerusalem theater
The El Hakawati theater. Photo by Emil Salman
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Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch has blocked a Palestinian children's theater festival from opening in East Jerusalem this Saturday night on the claim that the event was "under the auspices of or sponsored by the Palestinian Authority."

According to Aharonovitch, the holding of such an event associated with the PA in Israel contradicts an Israeli law passed as part of the Oslo peace process. Aharonovitch's order bars this event from taking place not only in Jerusalem but anywhere else in Israel proper.

The festival was scheduled to feature performances at the El Hakawati Palestinian national theater in East Jerusalem, but Aharonovitch's order closes the theater for eight days beginning on the scheduled first day of the festival, which has been held annually for 18 years.

Preparations for this year's event began about four months ago, and the festival has been promoted over the past two weeks. Most of the shows, including puppet theater, were to be performed by Israeli Arabs. Foreign troupes from Norway, France and Turkey were also on the program.

The festival has received funding from the Palestinian Cultural Fund, which is supported by the Norwegian representative office in Ramallah. Private Palestinian companies and a Palestinian nongovernmental organization also support the theater.

Last Thursday the director of the El Hakawati theater, Mohammed Halayka, was summoned for questioning by what he said was the Shin Bet security service at the offices of the Jerusalem police. Halayka told Haaretz that he denied that the PA was behind the festival.

Halayka countered the assertion that the PA had funded the event, saying the authority doesn't even have the funding to meet its own payroll. Halayka told Haaretz he was not shown any evidence supporting the Shin Bet's allegations.

A spokeswoman for the Public Security Ministry declined to say whether evidence was presented but mentioned the law stating that the PA or anyone acting on its behalf, under its auspices or using its name may not conduct activity in Israel without permission from the government or its representatives. The law authorizes the public security minister to forbid any unauthorized activity.

"The Public Security Ministry does not oppose artistic and cultural activities for the children of East Jerusalem as long as they are carried out in accordance with the law," the ministry said in statement to Haaretz.

Jerusalem city council member Yosef Alalu (Meretz), who holds the municipality's culture portfolio, said he was aware of the difficulties municipal agencies have in providing cultural offerings in East Jerusalem. The closure order is therefore a particularly tough and unjustified blow, he added.

The El Hakawati Palestinian national theater was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1984 at a movie theater in East Jerusalem. The founders were from an already existing El Hakawati theater company that was formed in the late 1970s.

During the 1970s and '80s, East Jerusalem was still the capital of Palestinian culture for residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, when there was freedom of movement between the two territories and Jerusalem. In recent years, despite its isolation from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the El Hakawati theater has presented a regular schedule of plays, films and concerts.

The theater's management had envisioned the festival as a week of cultural events for children who lack access to the theater and other cultural offerings. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, East Jerusalem is home to 370,000 Palestinians, 78 percent of whom live below the poverty line, as do 84 percent of Palestinian children in East Jerusalem.