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‘To sing is not a right in the Gaza Strip’

With mounting social and political restrictions under Hamas rule, musicians are struggling to develop their music careers in the strip. Many seek to leave in search of opportunities elsewhere.

By Hind Khoudary

Hamada Naserallah, lead singer of Sol Band, performing in Gaza. (Screenshot)

Hamada Naserallah, lead singer of Sol Band, performing in Gaza. (Screenshot)

GAZA CITY — Abed Nasser, the owner of Cedar restaurant in Gaza City, broke the news to his customers in a Facebook post: the highly-anticipated music night scheduled for later that Ramadan evening had to be cancelled due to harassment and interference by the Hamas government.

According to Nasser, the police sought to prevent mixed attendance. They ordered him not to let men participate, except if they were part of a family taking part in the event. Nasser was asked to report to the police’s intelligence branch in Gaza, but he refused.

Music is increasingly becoming a way for young Gazans to channel stress and trauma — Palestinians in Gaza have had to endure violence and human rights abuses for decades, particularly since Israel imposed a blockade on the strip in 2007. But with mounting social, political, and religious restrictions under Hamas rule, opportunities for musicians are limited, as the government prevents groups and businesses that give performers a stage from doing so.

Artists who want to perform or venues that intend to host cultural events must first secure a permit. The process involves contacting at least four different authorities: the Tourism Ministry, the Public Security Ministry, the General Investigations Unit, which, among other things, acts as the public morality police, and the Abbas police station. Permits are issued depending on security and social considerations. Several businesses that have been subjected to such restrictions were contacted for this article, but refused to be interviewed out of fear of government intimidation.

A Palestinian band perform during a concert calling to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Israel in Tel Aviv, on the rubble of a building that was recently destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on May 14, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90

A Palestinian band perform during a concert calling to boycott the Eurovision Song Contest hosted by Israel in Tel Aviv, on the rubble of a building that was recently destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on May 14, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Hamada Naserallah, a professional singer and law school graduate, said Hamas has stopped him from performing in Gaza at least 50 times. “To sing is not a right in the Gaza Strip,” said Naserallah, who performs with Sol Band, a Palestinian music group named after the fifth note of the musical scale. The eight-member troupe plays both modern and traditional Arabic music. “Suppression, humiliation, banning parties, controlling freedom — I can’t freely sing as any other singer on this planet,” added Naserallah.

Following a 2016 concert at Red Crescent Hall, police banned Sol Band from playing for two years, because women and girls in the audience were clapping and singing along with Naserallah, he said. Nowadays, a police officer is stationed at each of his concerts, supervising his song list and interactions with the audience. “I remember the police once threatened to kick me off stage if I sang ‘love songs,’” he remarked.

Sol Band had the opportunity to perform at the Palestine Music Expo in Ramallah in April. For Naserallah, it was the dream of leaving Gaza come true. Leaving Gaza is expensive and requires a difficult-to-obtain permit, and Israel forbids almost any travel between the West Bank and Gaza for Palestinians. For Naserallah, this was also a chance to experience singing on stage without government supervision or censorship; Ramallah is relatively more liberal than Gaza.

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The Palestinian community in Gaza was largely traditional and conservative “long before Hamas seized control in June 2007,” Mkhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al Azhar University, wrote in 2010. But since Hamas took over the strip, it has intensified its efforts to force conservative interpretations of Sharia rules, also regarding social life in the strip.

In a request for comment, Gaza Police Spokesman Ayman Al Batniji said the authorities only prevent parties that “encourage abnormal mixing” between the sexes. The police ban gatherings that can harm the community’s values, he added, stressing that Gaza is a conservative society. People or businesses that were prevented from holding a party have had previous issues concerning public morality with the government, said Batniji, but otherwise the authorities do not ban people from performing or hosting cultural events.

According to a study by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research that looked at Hamas’ governance in the strip from 2011 to 2015, Hamas has informally allowed for more liberal approaches to exist in parallel to its conservative rule. For example, Hamas encourages the separation of sexes at schools and universities, but it hasn’t officially enforced that. Based on the findings of that same report, however, Hamas has shown “little tolerance for mixed attendance at cultural activities, especially those involving music, dancing, and singing.”

Members of Sol Band (Left to Right) singer Rahaf Shamaly, oud player Said Fadel, and lead singer Hamada Naserallah. (Hind Khoudary)

Members of Sol Band (Left to Right) singer Rahaf Shamaly, oud player Said Fadel, and lead singer Hamada Naserallah. (Hind Khoudary)

The social restrictions are taking their toll, so much so that Sol Band has given up on performing in Gaza. Instead, they decided to cultivate an audience on social media by releasing videos on Instagram and Facebook. Yet even that becomes difficult, says Naserallah, since Hamas does not allow musicians in Gaza to film videos of themselves singing or playing an instrument in the street without first securing a permit with the Interior Affairs Ministry — not even for an Instagram story.

Three of the band members have already left Gaza for good due to the lack of freedoms and opportunities to develop their music careers there. One of the younger members, 16-year-old Rahaf Shamaly, is prohibited from singing on stage as well as at restaurants and cafes in Gaza, simply because she is a woman. Last year, police banned Shamaly from performing at the Jazz Journey in Palestine held by UNESCO in Gaza.

“I live in a conservative community where culture and traditions are controlling the people. Gaza is not used to a female singer among male musicians,” said Shamaly. She believes that she doesn’t have a future as a singer in Gaza due to these restrictions. Like many Palestinian youth frustrated with the various layers of oppression, surging unemployment, and restrictions on freedom, she plans to leave the strip after she graduates high school.

Hind Khoudary is a reporter based in Gaza.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      Greg, you find it difficult to distinguish between Hamas banning music and Israel asking foreign government institutions to stop funding anti-Israeli propaganda?

      That doesn’t reflect well on your mental abilities.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Whenever you see someone deploy the phrase “anti-Israel propaganda,” in this very phrasing you know you are dealing with actual pro-right wing Israeli propaganda, and with a nice totalitarian ring to it too, as in “anti-Soviet propaganda.” It is everybody’s business, not just Israel’s “internal” concern, what goes on in the entity comprising Israel and the external territories it occupies and the foreign people its military controls. As someone here said, the way a government treats NGOs is a test of whether they are a genuine democracy or not, or just posing as one. Israel fails the test.
        You have the right to condescend to Greg about his mental abilities, I guess, but then we reserve the right to ask you how you failed somewhere along life’s way to grasp the rudimentary concept of “violation of free speech”?

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Foreign governments have no implicit or explicit right to sponsor organizations in other countries. No existing rights, certainly not free speech, are being violated by requesting, demanding or even banning foreign governments from sponsoring domestic organizations.

          Organizations whose modus operandi is to produce information with the explicit purpose of negatively influencing foreign governments or publics against Israel are producing anti-Israeli propaganda. Such organizations are prominent and quite explicit that this is what they are doing.

          And no, it isn’t “everyone’s business” what is happening here. There is no conceivable justification by which it is the right of some European government to intervene domestically in my country short of some sort of imperialist white man’s burden. Europe has f*#ked up the world enough with its advice and help. It can take both and shove them where the sun don’t shine.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “in my country”

            Upon this false premise the rest of your argument collapses.

            Besides that, the USA, for example, does not do anything like what Israel does to persecute NGOs that don’t toe the government line — in this case the line of “Human rights? What’s that? Everything’s fine. Leave us alone. Occupation? What occupation?”

            And besides that, you never have any problem with (just for example, but there are plenty of other examples) a foreign Las Vegas casino magnate grossly interfering with the press landscape in Israel with massive funding of a massively distributed freebie that is basically a Netanyahu propaganda sheet.

            Your “It can take both and shove them where the sun don’t shine” shows your Israeli right wing instinct for violent solutions and your frustration and your hostility to any European who in 2019 isn’t intimidated and is clear-headed and doesn’t submissively kowtow to the “oh my god we opposed something the Israelis are doing we must be terrible anti-Semites” form of intimidation and manipulation.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Yes, in my country. The NGOs you are talking about are Israeli. Foreign governments are funding NGOs in my country. Hence my premise is solid and your response is just your usual sophistry.

            What the US does or doesn’t do about its own domestic organizations isn’t any of my concern and has no bearing here.

            Who says I have no problem with Sheldon funding Israel Hayom? You are just making assumptions for your whataboutery.

            My hostility is to any European that sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong because he/she believes themselves superior and worthy of imparting wisdom to the poor savages of the world. He/she can take that sense of entitlement and shove it.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I’m not assuming anything. I’m observing your speech patterns.
            And it’s not “whataboutery” because it’s all the same subject in the same realm, just changing the political and humanitarian content. You object as well to the massive covert foreign funding pipelines to the settlers and right wing NGOs? Your silence on the matter is loud.

            You know I really do understand. I understand your near totalitarian hostility to tiny little shoestring human rights efforts and to tiny little bands of human rights workers and journalists chased around the West Bank and shoved around by a hugely well-funded and foreign (American and German)-funded powerful army that also benefits massively from European funding of the occupation costs that army would otherwise have to bear. It’s so upsetting isn’t it? The injustice!

            The German government does more obsequious water carrying, covering and genuine protecting of Israel than anyone on earth besides the Americans. That it also might happen to contribute, against that sea of help and that sea of funding and unswerving political support of Israel’s defense that it provides, a tiny tiny trickle of funds to the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which does a lot of good in the world all over besides giving tiny school-bake-sale amounts to +972 Magazine and to NGOs trying to minimally protect the most basic human rights of human beings Israel ruthlessly tramples in territory external to Israel—-it all is just so tough for you, it’s so rough, I completely understand your seething hostility.

            Parenthetically, Israel interferes in US politics all the time. With a straight face you wanna tell me that AIPAC is not a kind of Israeli NGO?

            Right wing Israelis come off, over and over, as mind-bogglingly entitled, arrogant and hypocritical. Just in a category by themselves. Really your posturing is instructive.

            Once more the truth: What goes on in the entity comprising Israel and the territories it occupies is everybody’s business. What goes on in the territories is not an internal affair.

            Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: I believe the people of Gaza have the right to deal with their own miserable, corrupt government without having to deal with Israel’s miserable, corrupt government on top of it. Apparently Israeli policy is to keep Gazans from getting an education –

        “Israel is still preventing some 625 students from leaving Gaza to pursue higher education in the USA, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and other places around the world. Despite pledging to allow university students to leave Gaza as a “political gesture,” Israel has let out fewer than half, and now refuses to let the others go..”

        https://gisha.org/press/1007

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          You mean educate the Gaza Palestinian population so they could build and strengthen modern, Western democratic foundations in their society and grow seeds of resistance to Hamas and foster peace-making with Israel? Why, don’t be silly, the last thing Israel really wants to do is weaken Hamas and strengthen Palestinian peace-makers. Israel’s government, despite what it says to outsiders, secretly LOVES Hamas.

          Reply to Comment