As contestants from 41 countries walked the orange carpet in Tel Aviv for the opening ceremony of the Eurovision song contest on 14 May, Palestinians showed the world they remain defiant in the face of Israeli aggression. Amid the rubble of an eight-storey Gaza apartment complex recently bombed by Israeli airstrikes, Palestinians artist held their own song contest, Gazavision.
“We want to send a message to the Israeli occupation that Gaza will not surrender. Like the phoenix when it is turned to ashes, Gaza will rise again”, organiser Salem Harara told the news website Middle East Eye. The Palestinian youth organisation We Are Not Numbers initiated Gazavision as one of a series of concerts known as Globalvision, part of a global campaign calling for the boycott of this year’s Eurovision contest in protest against Israeli apartheid and military occupation. Concerts were also held in London, Dublin, Bethlehem and Haifa.
Gazavision was, according to its organisers, a show of defiance against “Israel’s campaign to whitewash and distract attention from its war crimes against Palestinians”. Gazavision offered a platform for six Palestinian finalists to perform in front of a Gaza audience, who were asked to vote for their favourite artist. One performer, Ghada Shoman, has performed in more than 100 events since 2012. In 2015, Shoman sang in a concert streamed live in Jerusalem, a city she cannot visit due to Israel’s military occupation. “My family is originally from Jerusalem, a home I’ve never been to. There was sad irony in it ... My voice made it home before my feet could”, she told We Are Not Numbers.
Another well-known Gaza artist performing in Gazavision, Ahmed Tafesh, has received numerous invitations to sing abroad, but, like Shoman, has been denied the opportunity to travel out of Gaza. Tafesh’s last invitation was to the Franco Music Festival in Egypt. “I had a permit from the Egyptian army, but I kept waiting and waiting for Rafah Crossing to open and it never did”, he told We Are Not Numbers. “So I lost the chance to represent my Palestinian people in this huge festival that included many Arabic singers from several countries.”
The day after Gazavision, thousands assembled near the fence that separates Gaza’s 2 million besieged population from Israel in a protest known as the Great March of Return, held weekly since Palestinian Land Day on 30 March last year. Palestinians face Israeli sniper fire, tear gas and rubber bullets while they demand Israel recognise their rights as refugees to return to their homeland.
The day also marked the anniversary of a Zionist campaign of ethnic cleansing that emptied 500 Palestinian villages of their indigenous inhabitants and forced 750,000 into exile: an exile from which they are yet to return. While Israelis celebrate 14 May as the date of declaration of the State of Israel, 15 May is known to Palestinians as the Nakba (catastrophe). To date, more than 200 have been killed during the Great March of Return protests, and thousands are nursing injuries that have led to loss of limbs and physical impairment. The deadliest protest was on 14 May last year, the day Israeli Eurovision contestant Netta Barzila secured Israel’s victory and 2019 hosting rights for the song contest. Israel massacred 60 Palestinians that day.
This year, the mood in Gaza was sombre, yet defiant. Ten days before, a weekend of Israeli airstrikes had pummelled Gaza, destroying several apartment blocks and at least 14 homes, according to the Gaza-based human rights group Al Mezan. At least 24 Palestinians were killed, including two pregnant women and two babies. A fragile truce was negotiated between Hamas and Israel, after Palestinian militant groups targeted southern Israel with hundreds of rockets, killing four people. Yet it offers little relief to Palestinians in Gaza suffering under a 12-year blockade.
“Like all previous ceasefires mediated by the Egyptian authorities and the United Nations, this one also aimed to maintain ‘stability’ in the open-air concentration camp that Gaza is, for as long as possible, by demanding that any form of resistance is subdued”, Al-Aqsa University academic Haidar Eid wrote in an article published by Quds News Network. “As in the past, Palestinians are now expected to gratefully accept a ‘period of calm’ where Israeli bombs are not raining on their houses and its blockade continues to strangulate Gaza.”
While Eurovision 2019 may have seemed the perfect distraction for Israel to hide its war crimes, this year’s song contest was perhaps the most controversial in its 63-year history. More than 40,000 people signed a global petition urging songwriters and performers to boycott the contest “just as they once boycotted the apartheid regime in South Africa”.
In Ireland, veterans of the movement again South African apartheid called on Ireland’s contestant, Sarah McTernan, to pull out of Eurovision: “As with apartheid South Africa’s promotion of the ‘Sun City’ resort as an entertainment venue, it is simply not possible to view the Eurovision being held in Tel Aviv as merely an apolitical cultural event”.
In the 1980s, Sun City, a Las Vegas style resort in the bantustan of Bophuthatswana, was the venue for numerous concerts, held in defiance of a cultural and sporting boycott of the country. Hotel magnate Sol Kerzner lured famous international artists to the venue with large sums of money.
A key target of the Eurovision 2019 boycott call was pop star Madonna, invited by Israel’s public broadcaster to perform at Eurovision’s finale. Canadian billionaire Sylvan Adams agreed to fund Madonna’s performance for around US$1 million. Adams told the Jerusalem Post that Madonna’s performance “will make a significant contribution to the success of the event and to the strengthening of Israel’s positive branding in the world”.
After arriving in Tel Aviv, Madonna told reporters she would “never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be”. However, her actions belied her words: her performance clearly supported Israel’s political agenda, and she remained silent on Palestinian human rights.
On 9 May, more than 100 French artists denounced Israel’s hosting of Eurovision, condemning Israel’s war crimes, including its deliberate destruction of Gaza’s main performance and arts venue, the Said al-Mishal Cultural Centre. “We call on France Television and the French delegation not to bail out a regime that sends snipers every Friday against unarmed children in the Great March of Return in Gaza”, the artists stated. “Self-respecting entertainment would not play in the land of apartheid. We would not have accepted it in South Africa and we don’t accept it for Israel.”
More than 60 LGBTQ organisations from around the world signed a statement condemning Israel’s “shameful” use of Eurovision to “distract attention from its war crimes against Palestinians” and “forward its pinkwashing agenda, the cynical use of gay rights to distract from and normalize Israel’s occupation, settler colonialism and apartheid”.
Drawing parallels between the 1969 Stonewall riots and the Great March of Return, the signatories called for a boycott of both Eurovision and the Israeli government-backed Tel Aviv Pride.
In Israel there were protests too. A dozen protesters, wearing blindfolds and Free Palestine T-shirts, attempted to block the entrance of Eurovision’s opening before being dragged away by police. “We’re here to protest culture washing, to say no to sparkles and glitters while Palestinians are under occupation, and to stand in solidarity with Gazans, calling for the right of return”, an activist named Lara told reporters at the event.
Breaking the Silence, an organisation of Israeli veterans opposed to Israel’s military occupation, erected a billboard on the road from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv, inviting tourists to join a daily tour to Hebron during the music festival. Its website said that the tours would “explore the harsh consequences of the policy of separation, the heavy military presence in the city and meet with Palestinian residents”.
While the boycott call did not persuade any contestants to abandon Eurovision, it clearly affected international attendance. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted on 5 May that “the anticipated stream of tourists ... has not materialised”. Only around 5,000 tourists were expected to attend, according to Eurovision producers. For Palestinians, the struggle against apartheid continues. As Haidar Eid explained:
“We will continue to fight for our dignity, for ourselves and for our children. We, members of the Palestinian civil society, have long argued that the way forward should be people’s power – the only force capable of tackling the huge asymmetry of power in the struggle against Israel.
“And our Great March of Return has demonstrated this. We successfully broke efforts to intentionally separate the Gaza ‘conflict’ from its roots and made our demands heard across the world. We don’t want another short-term ceasefire or slight ‘improvement’ in living conditions under a ‘deal of the century’. We don’t want breadcrumbs. We want to return to our lands, we want our rights under international law to be recognised.”
Nick Everett is co-convener of Friends of Palestine Western Australia.