Last Monday, Palestinian singer and newly crowned Arab Idol, Mohammed Assaf, from the Gaza Strip, performed the first of three free concerts in the West Bank.
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A day before that, the first eleven youngsters of a group totaling 47 musicians from the Gaza Strip, aged 8-16, also performed near Ramallah, albeit with much less fanfare.
The children were taking part in a five-day summer camp for young musicians run by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, a 20-year old institution advancing the study of music through its five branches in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Their request to travel to the West Bank from Gaza was initially rejected by the Israeli army. The official reason for the rejection had been that the request did not meet the army’s definition of “humanitarian,” which is the only circumstance under which a resident of Gaza is allowed to travel to the West Bank. Well, unless you’re Mohammed Assaf. At the eleventh hour and under pressure from various directions, especially from Gisha, the human rights organization I work for, the army decided to let the children travel.
Children make up a staggering 53% of the population of the Gaza Strip. With the population now standing at around 1.7 million, that makes for 901,000 girls and boys under the age of 18. I begin many of talks I give to various audiences with this statistic. The surprise and concern are usually visible on people’s faces immediately. Sometimes I have to repeat myself, often even more than once.
I believe the surprise comes from a deep and intuitive place within many people which has come to equate Gaza with terror and rockets. If there is an image in one’s mind about an individual from Gaza, he is likely to be male, only his eyes visible from behind a black balaclava-type mask. He may be young, but he’s certainly of age. He carries an AK-47 or has a mortar launcher slung over one shoulder.
There are men in the Strip who fit this stereotype, but the statistics speak for themselves and the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza are not militants. In fact, the majority are children. Once you wrap your mind around that fact, it can easily lead you to question the rationale behind a policy which once considered toys and school books luxuries and now prevents travel to the West Bank for recent high-school graduates from Gaza seeking to earn bachelor’s degrees in law and human rights.
Mohammed Assaf, the Arab Idol, has also shattered these stereotypes, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the extensive media coverage about him around the world.
Skeptics might reply: “Young people are being indoctrinated in Gaza by Hamas to become militants so we can’t know who is innocent!” “If Hamas didn’t launch rockets, all kids in Gaza could go to summer camp!” “Israeli children are also suffering!”
I won’t try to dispute these statements here in this short piece. But I will note that the army never said it wouldn’t let the children travel based on security concerns. It didn’t explain how preventing them from going to music camp was going to stop militants from launching rockets or how it might prevent Israeli children from suffering, as they certainly do. My personal opinion is that they didn’t explain the connection because there is none. The policy to limit Gaza access to humanitarian cases has long passed its expiration date, yet when it comes to travel of individuals, even children, it’s still the only language the army speaks.
In one episode of Arab Idol, one of the judges marveled at how many stars like Mohammed Assaf might be in Gaza at that very moment, unknown to the world. We just came to know 47 children who were this close to missing a chance to attend summer camp and develop their musical skills - who knows, perhaps in an effort to be the next stars to represent Palestine. We’re grateful for the happy ending to this particular case and to Mohammed Assaf’s story, which just proves that many more like it are possible.
Tania Hary is the director of international relations at Gisha – Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, on Twitter: @Gisha_Access.