Posted by Matthew Rothschild on May 25, 2009

The Israeli government sent in troops on May 23 to try to break up the opening of the second annual Palestine Festival of Literature in East Jerusalem.

Stephanie Saldana, an American writer living in Jerusalem, went to the Palestinian National Theater for what she thought was going to be the opening of the festival.

“We arrived and the place was swarming with the Israeli army, with trucks and huge guns,” she wrote in an e-mail to a friend. “I am still in shock. To ban literature? To ban reading? How is this possible?”

The Israeli minister of internal security ordered the busting of the literature festival, according to The Guardian newspaper.

“Shortly before the opening event was due to begin, a squad of around a dozen Israeli border police walked into the Palestinian National Theater, in East Jerusalem, and ordered it to be closed,” the Guardian reported. “Police brought a letter from the Israeli minister of internal security which said the event could not be held because it was a political activity connected to the Palestinian Authority.”

The Palestine Festival of Literature is supported by UNESCO and the British Council, among others.

After they were kicked out of the theater, the speakers and some of the audience members regrouped at the French cultural center.

Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif gave this account at

“I saw 10 old friends in the first minute, all the Jerusalem cultural and academic set were there, a lot of Internationals, a lot of press,” she wrote. “We stood in the early evening light, by the tables laden with books and food and flowers, nibbled at kofta and borek and laughed and chatted and introduced new friends to old. . . . Then we started moving towards the auditorium and I heard someone say quietly, ‘They’ve come.’


“Looking around – and there they were, the men in the dark blue fatigues, with pack-type things strapped to their backs and machine-guns cradled in their arms. I had a moment of unbelief. Surely, even if they were coming to note everything we said and to make a show of strength they still wouldn’t come with their weapons at the ready like this? But then there were more of them, and more.”

Soeuif described the walk to the French cultural center, and the successful resumption of the festival there. “We could have gone on for hours – but we stopped at half past eight. We dispersed; energized, happy, shaking hands, signing books, promising to all meet up again. Today, my friends, we saw the clearest example of our mission,” she said, invoking the words of Edward Said. “To confront the culture of power with the power of culture.”

The Palestine Festival of Literature, a weeklong celebration, is continuing in various Palestinian cities. ( “Palfest brings writers and artists from around the world to Palestinian audiences,” says its website,

Along with Soueif, the writers taking part in the festival this year include: Suad Amiry, Victoria Brittain, Carmen Callil, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, Jeremy Harding, Rachel Holmes, Robin Yassin-Kassab, Brigid Keenan, Jamal Mahjoub, Henning Mankell (accompanied by his wife, Eva Bergman), Deborah Moggach, Claire Messud, Michael Palin, Alexandra Pringle, Pru Rowlandson, Raja Shehadeh, and M G Vassanji.

Though Israel did not succeed in shutting down the entire festival, the use of the army to try to quash a literary event sent a chilling message.

“It's another horrific way Israel, the so-called democracy, tries to commandeer and bully the spirits of the people they continue to oppress,” says the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. She calls the bust at the Palestinian National Theater part of a “harrowing campaign of harassment and humiliation.”

The next part of that campaign may be a crackdown on anyone who marks Israel’s Independence Days as a “nakba,” or catastrophe, reports Haaretz.

On May 24, Israel’s ministerial committee for legislation “approved a preliminary proposal which would make it illegal” to hold such protests, the paper said. Those who would violate it would “face up to three years in prison.”

(For a video of the suppression at the Palestinian National Theater, go here: At about 2 minutes, 20 seconds in, the soldiers arrive.)