Ai Weiwei’s Trip to Gaza Delayed During Surprise Visit to Israel

The Chinese dissident artist is filming a documentary on refugees throughout the world.

Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei talks with migrants in a makeshift camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, March 11, 2016.
Reuters / Stoyan Nenov

The Israeli authorities expect to give Chinese artist Ai Weiwei permission to enter the Gaza Strip in a few days to film for a documentary on refugees around the world, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said.

Ai arrived in Israel unannounced Sunday and was refused a permit to enter the Strip, where he had planned to film on Tuesday.

The spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said the production company working with Ai had submitted its entry request on very short notice.

Ai, a high-profile artist and human rights activist, posted an Instagram photo of his entry permit for Israel upon arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

On Monday he visited refugee camps in the West Bank and began conducting interviews for his documentary. His first meeting was with the head of the Joint Arab List, MK Ayman Odeh, whom he met at a Jerusalem hotel. The Israeli legislator said Ai had asked to meet with him to discuss the Palestinian refugee issue.

“What interests him about this issue are the Syrian refugees, but we spoke about the Nakba and its significance,” Odeh said, referring to the more than 700,000 Arabs who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-49 Israeli War of Independence.

“I told him this was a great historic wound because anyone who wants to build joint citizenship has to recognize a historic injustice and work to correct it, not by committing an injustice against others.”

Odeh said he told Ai “about the abandoned Palestinian villages, whose residents are referred to as uprooted or present absentees, i.e., that they remained in their homeland but not in their own villages.

"I said the State of Israel had built 700 new communities since its founding, all of them for Jews and not a single one for Arabs. So I told him that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if the residents went back to their homes, and this would correct a historic injustice and strengthen joint citizenship.”

Odeh said Ai asked if there was still an option for coexistence between Jews and Arabs.

“I told him of course there was . We spoke about how Yitzhak Rabin had ordered the breaking of arms and legs [during the first intifada] and only a few years later he stood on the [White House] lawn with Yasser Arafat and signed the Oslo Accords,” Odeh said.

“So there’s no reason to despair. Change can come through cooperation between Jews and Arabs on behalf of democracy and equality, and that path will triumph.”

Odeh said he was doing what he could to help get Ai into Gaza.

“They aren’t letting him in on grounds that it could endanger his life, but that’s ridiculous because Gaza residents would be happy to tell him about their situation,” Odeh said.

“From the Gazans’ perspective he’s an asset . I think there’s no doubt that in Israel they don’t want these stories getting out to the world, especially when the person conveying them is such a familiar and influential personality.”

Earlier this year, an exhibition by Ai and Israeli photographer Miki Kratsman featuring photos of refugee camps throughout the world was canceled. The Tel Aviv Museum cited a scheduling problem but Kratsman said the event was canceled for political reasons.

Ai, a human rights activist who served a prison sentence in China and was forbidden to leave the country for several years, has been busy in recent months documenting Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek islands.

A few months ago he was criticized for being photographed on a beach in a position that recalled the Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach last year.