Israeli Burning Man-style Event Planned for West Bank Sparks Controversy

An initiative to hold the 'Dead Sea Burn' music festival near an Area C settlement, where Palestinians reside and will not be able to join in, prompts criticism

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A Midburn festival in the Negev, May 21, 2015.
A Midburn festival in the Negev, May 21, 2015.Credit: Ilan Assayag

An initiative from Israel's "Burner" community to hold a Burning Man-style event in the West Bank's Area C is causing controversy among the festival's devotees, as the international community views the location as occupied territory.

The organizers of “Dead Sea Burn” assert that their choice of venue in the West Bank's northern Dead Sea region bears no political significance. But members of Midburn, Israel's Burning Man community, have voiced opposition to holding the event without coordination with local Palestinians in a conflict zone.

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Israel’s Midburn association, the official representative of U.S.-based Burning Man, was established in 2012. It is modeled after Nevada's long-running Burning Man festival, with the aim of "creating a platform which will allow a communal lifestyle, creativity, art and radical self-expression," according to its official website.

The association has organized main events for the community since 2014, such as a Midburn Festival in the Negev, which has attracted thousands of devoted attendees each year. But residents of Sde Boker have raised opposition to the festival in recent years, saying that the event causes serious environmental damage, health hazards and noise pollution, which has made it difficult for the association to organize the event.

Last year, the organization was given approval to use a military training area in Israel's south, but the group's request was turned down by the Israel Defense Forces due to the army's training schedule. This year, the group said the festival would not be held in the Negev, and that it was looking for a different site.

'Holding an event in occupied territory is a political step'

A few community members took it upon themselves to organize an independent event to be held in April, for which they have chosen a 130-acre site in the northern Dead Sea region, near the Almog settlement. Although the organizers have not yet been granted police approval to hold the festival, which usually happens days before an event is scheduled, ticket sales are set to begin this week. The event will be limited to 15,000 participants, but only about a thousand are expected to attend.

The event isn’t considered an official event of the U.S. Burning Man organization, or affiliated with the Israeli Midburn association. The Midburn association said that they considered holding one of their main festivals in the same area in 2016, but decided against it to keep the community free of political discourse. The Israeli group, which was not involved in organizing the Dead Sea Burn, has not commented on the issue, reiterating its apolitical stance.

In the event's announcement on Facebook last week, Yaron Ben-Shoshan, one of the organizers, posted that while the chosen location “is beyond the Green Line,” that is, beyond Israel's 1967 borders, "recently they’ve been talking about Israel annexing this land, so a momentary decision could place it inside the Green Line, there’s no cause for concern.”

Burning the effigy at a Midburn event in the Negev, June 6, 2014.Credit: Michal Fattal

Shoshan told Haaretz he has consistently strayed from politics and insisted that as long as the event fell within the criteria set by Burning Man and the state’s laws, there was no reason not to hold it. “In my worldview, I don't see a world with borders, with lines between people,” Shoshan said. He said that all discussion about territories “from my standpoint are political issues that I don’t want to deal with.”

Shoshan said that this week the organizers will meet with Midburn community members to try and resolve the matter.

Koby Biton, another organizer, told Haaretz that they are seeking a way to clear the air among community members, whether by finding an alternative site or by seeking to cooperate with Palestinians and Jordanians in holding the event.

“I’m not looking to hold an event just for the sake of it, I want to hold an event for the community, if the community doesn’t feel comfortable with it then the whole thing isn’t right,” Biton said. But with two months until the festival, it may be nearly impossible to find another site in which to stage it.

Roni Kantor, one of Midburn’s founders, wrote on Facebook that she objected to the venue. “Since Jericho is under Israeli military control over a population that is largely Palestinian and since there is military suppression in the area on a regular basis, to hold an event there without any real participation by Palestinians and any radical effort to include them, would lead to a situation where many people would boycott the event, myself included.”

Kantor told Haaretz that she is trying to arrange for the event to be held in cooperation with local Palestinians.

Korhaa Yuval Itah, 39, a Midburn community member from Jaffa, felt similarly. “I am against holding an event in an area under military occupation,” he told Haaretz. “This is a conflict zone under military rule which doesn’t permit and won’t permit residents from the area to attend. This isn’t an event organized from the outset with the cooperation of the Palestinians and I think that there's something really insensitive here.”

Yuval Itah said this is the community’s first political debate. The fact that Israelis are holding an enormous event in occupied territory, he said, "immediately thrusts this into the political field. Holding the event in occupied territory is already a political step.”

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