JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli police shut down a Palestinian theater in East Jerusalem on Thursday, forcing foreign writers taking part in an international literature festival to move elsewhere for the second time in a week.
The police action was the latest in recent weeks against what Israel sees as attempts by the Palestinian Authority to host political activities in the city, where both sides in the conflict have staked claims to have their national capital.
Organizers and guests voiced disappointment at the treatment of what they said was a cultural, not a political, event.
“All cultural events which take place in areas of contention have political undertones,” British writer Jeremy Harding said at the theater after police moved in. “Talking about what literature is and what it means in a fraught political situation is the most honest thing we can do. They didn’t like that.”
On the same day, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was meeting Barack Obama at the White House, seeking support from the U.S. president for Palestinian demands that the new Israeli government change policies that Abbas says will block a resumption of peace negotiations.
Police ordered the assembled authors and the audience for the closing event of the 6-day Palestine Festival of Literature to leave before a reading at the Palestinian National Theater. It lies in the city’s east, which was captured by Israeli forces in 1967 and occupied along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Saturday’s opening event at the theater was also shut down.
A police notice declared a closure on the orders of Israel’s internal security minister on the grounds of a breach of interim peace accords from the 1990s. These laid the framework for talks on establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but left the status of Jerusalem to be determined by further negotiation.
Israel says the entire city is and always will be its capital, a point stressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week on the 42nd anniversary of Israel’s capture of Arab East Jerusalem.
For their part, Palestinians want their capital to be in the city.
Since a February election that brought the right-wing Likud leader to power, Israeli authorities have also banned events marking Jerusalem becoming the Arab League’s Capital of Arab Culture for 2009 and closed down a media center set up in East Jerusalem for this month’s visit to the city by Pope Benedict.
Palestinians, who make up about a third of the population of Israel’s municipality of Jerusalem, complain of a campaign to drive them out.
Israeli officials deny any discrimination in policies that range from the demolition of homes built without permits to the provision of municipal services in Arab areas.
Amal Nashashibi, attending the literature festival, said: “Because of the drive to make the city purely Jewish, they’re trying to black out anything that is related to Arab culture.”
Dozens of people moved quietly from the theater to the nearby British Council, one of the sponsors of the festival.
In its second edition, it lists among its patrons the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and British playwright Harold Pinter. Both Pinter, who was Jewish, and Darwish were known as critics of Israeli policy. Both died in the past year.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Tim Pearce)
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