Israeli police raided two major Palestinian cultural institutions in East Jerusalem on Wednesday, confiscating computers and documents and a private car. The two institutions’ directors, a husband and wife, were arrested at home, and a third staffer was arrested at his.
Rania Elias, who heads the Yabous Cultural Center, and her husband, composer Suhail Khoury, of the Jerusalem Society for Music Teaching and Research, were released 12 hours later, after being interrogated at the Har Homa police station. The detention of the staffer, Daoud al-Ghoul, was extended until Sunday.
Warrants authorizing the search of the two facilities alleged that the institutions were suspected of money laundering, funding terrorism and tax evasion. A joint press release from the police, the Justice Ministry and Israel Tax Authority made no mention of suspicions of the funding of terrorism. The statement indicated that the investigation of the two institutions and the raids and arrests were the result of a “change in the concept of the function of the Registrar of Associations” and part of an effort to improve the registrar’s oversight and enforcement activities.
Justice Ministry spokeswoman Carmit Orpaz-Yamin said in response to an inquiry from Haaretz that the first case in which the “change in the concept of the function” of the registrar’s office was implemented was on July 13 and involved an investigation into dozens of sports associations in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Letzion. The second operation, which she said was dubbed “menifa,” fan in Hebrew, targeted the two Palestinian cultural institutions. Calling the two operations a “kind of experiment,” the spokeswoman added that after studying the results and drawing conclusions, “we will consider additional steps and expanding the oversight.”
Muayed Miari, a lawyer for the Society for Music Teaching and Research, told Haaretz that “according to the little we were told, the investigation is in its early stages.” The quick release of the two directors, subject to few restrictions, “attests to the weight of the information the police have,” he said, implying that the police lack substantial evidence.
The lawyer for the Yabous Cultural Center, Nasser Odeh, told Haaretz that the request to extend Al Ghoul’s custody stated that he was suspected of belonging to an illegal organization, of rendering a service to it and of funding terrorism. But under questioning on Thursday, he was only asked about the activities of the cultural center, where he is an employee.
Yabous and the Society for Music Teaching and Research are part of the Shafaq Jerusalem arts network, an umbrella group of leading Palestinian cultural institutions in East Jerusalem. The El-Hakawti Palestinian national theater and the Al Housh and Al Ma’mal galleries are also members of the group. Until recently Al Ghoul was Shafaq’s activities director. Suhail Khoury, the director of the Jerusalem Society of Music, also directs the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music at Bir Zeit University.
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These institutions seek to maintain and expand Palestinian cultural life in Jerusalem, to enhance the city’s Palestinian character and to develop cultural and artistic ties with other institutions in the country and around the world. Over the past year and a half, their financial support from the European Union has been drastically reduced, a member of one of the institutions told Haaretz.
In recent years, the Israel Police have banned various Palestinian cultural activities in Jerusalem – including programming at the Yabous Center and at the El-Hakawti Theater – on the grounds that they were sponsored by the Palestinian Authority, in violation of a prohibition in the Oslo Accords against Palestinian Authority activity in East Jerusalem.
Officials at both of the targeted institutions and from the Palestinian Authority said they interpreted Wednesday’s investigation and arrests as part of an Israeli policy to curb expressions of Palestinian culture and identity in Jerusalem.