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Palestinian orchestra shut after Israel concert

Authorities in a Palestinian refugee camp have shut down a youth orchestra, boarded up its rehearsal studio and banned its conductor from the camp after she took 13 young musicians to perform in Israel, an official said Sunday.
Palestinian children from the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank pose for a photo after playing for Holocaust survivors at a center in Holon near Tel Aviv, Wednesday, March 25. Tara Todras-whitehll / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities in an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp have shut down a youth orchestra, boarded up its rehearsal studio and banned its conductor from the camp after she took 13 young musicians to perform for Holocaust survivors in Israel, an official said Sunday.

Conductor Wafa Younes took the children from her Strings of Freedom orchestra to sing songs of peace last week as part of an annual Good Deeds Day organized by Israel's richest woman. But once parents and leaders back in West Bank's Jenin refugee camp realized where the group had been, they shut down the program, saying Younes had dragged the children into a political issue.

The discord highlights both the distrust many Palestinians have of any engagement with Israel, as well as their reluctance to acknowledge Jewish historical suffering because of concerns that it weakens their own claim to this disputed land.

Millions killed in Nazi campaign
Some 6 million Jews were killed in the Nazi campaign to wipe out European Jewry, and the urgent need to find a sanctuary for hundreds of thousands of survivors catalyzed the creation of Israel after World War II.

A community leader in the Jenin camp, Adnan Hindi, said the musicians' parents had not known where Younes was taking their children and were angry when they learned of the performance from media reports.

"She exploited the children for a big political issue," said Hindi, head of a camp committee responsible for municipal duties.

Hindi did not deny there was a Holocaust, but said Palestinians had suffered at the hands of Israel.

"The Holocaust happened, but we are facing a similar massacre by the Jews themselves," he said. "We lost our land, and we were forced to flee and we've lived in refugee camps for the past 50 years."

More than 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation, an event Arabs call the Naqba, or catastrophe. Many of their descendants still live in refugee camps like Jenin.

"If I had known this was a political excursion, I would not have let my son go," said Ibrahim Samour, father of 18-year-old Qusay, who plays the kamanja, a traditional Arab stringed instrument similar to a violin.

'Has to be mutual recognition'
When asked why he objected to his son performing for the group of about 30 elderly Holocaust survivors, near Tel Aviv, Samour, 61, said his family fled to Jenin in 1948 from land that is now part of Israel.

"I'm not denying bad things happened to them, but there has to be mutual recognition," he said.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, called the orchestra's closure "very unfortunate."

Ignorance and even denial of the Holocaust is widespread in Palestinian society.

To increase awareness, Yad Vashem created an Arabic-language Web site last year with survivor testimonies that has so far received about a half million visits, Shalev said.

Khaled Mahameed, an Arab Israeli who runs a small institute in the biblical town of Nazareth to teach Palestinians about the Holocaust, said many Palestinians feel Israel uses the Holocaust to justify its actions against Palestinians.

"They think that if you talk about the Holocaust, then you feel sympathy for the Jewish people, and the conclusion is that you have to support Israel," he said.

Younes, an Arab from the northern Israeli village of Ara, had been training the modest orchestra of 11- to 13-year-olds for about three years and had taken them on previous trips, camp residents said.

Project bankrolled by billionaire
Younes said camp officials closed the ensemble so they could take over its funds.

"They want to destroy this group," she said. "It's a shame, it's a tragedy. What did these poor, elderly people do wrong? What did these children do wrong?"

The project was bankrolled by billionaire businesswoman Shari Arison.

At Wednesday's concert in Holon neither the orchestra nor the audience initially knew where the other was from. Audience members gasped when the performers were introduced as West Bank Palestinians, a rare sight in Israel.

And the performers had no idea the audience were survivors of the Nazi genocide — or even what the Holocaust was.

Israeli historian Tom Segev said lack of knowledge about each other's history hinders prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

"You can't understand Israel unless you understand the role of the Holocaust in Israeli identity," he said. "And if you don't understand your enemy, you can't make peace."