At 2am on January 9th, Randa Shaheen and Mohammed “Habshe” Yossef heard a knock on the door of their apartment in Bethlehem’s Aida refugee camp, adjacent to Israel’s separation Wall. “It was a different kind of knock than we would hear from our family, who live downstairs,” said Randa, her words evoking an ever-present anxiety for those living under occupation. Indeed, on opening the door, the couple’s apartment, which they share with three small children, was flooded with soldiers while some 50 more were swarming in the street below. “The whole thing took 15 minutes. They surrounded him in the living room so that I could not see him, and they started photographing the entire apartment. There was no explanation, no documents, nothing. To my every question they responded shakeit [“shut up” in Hebrew]. They told me to bring his socks and boots, and then they took him. That was it.”
Habshe is a community organizer in Aida camp, and a core (though geographically distant) member of the art collectives MTL+ and Decolonize This Place, well-known for their three-month 2016 residency at the New York venue Artists Space, the Anti-Columbus Day tours at the American Museum of Natural History, and their work in building out the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement in the international art world. Habshe previously served three years in Israeli prisons for organizing in Aida camp and within Fatah during the second Palestinian uprising that began in 2001. Since the end of the uprising in 2006, he has channelled much of his energy into art and cultural forms of resistance, including active involvement in local boycott campaigns, solidarity initiatives with Palestinian prisoners, and music and dance programs with Aida youth. A representative for Aida in the the Key of Return project at the 2012 Berlin Biennial (more on which below), Habshe is currently employed as a security guard at Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem.The hotel, whose rooms include a suite available for a thousand dollars per night, has attracted many visitors from the artworld, and a tour of nearby Aida camp is one of the in-house amenities on offer to international art tourists.
Habshe’s arrest is part of a stepped-up strategy by Israeli authorities to round up key members of the “popular committees” that exist, on a largely autonomous basis, to organize weekly protests, mutual aid, and community care in frontline Palestinian neighborhoods especially prone to incursions by the Israeli military. He is only one of many arrested in recent weeks across the West Bank, including, most famously, Ahed Tamini, the 16-year old woman currently held by Israel on the pretense of having slapped an IDF soldier, who is a popular committee organizer in the village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah. In Aida itself, Habshe’s colleague at Aida Youth Center (and chair of the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee) Munther Amira was arrested in late December. Military raids on several camps and villages, involving the use of live ammunition, have left a trail of dead and wounded, and, in a most severe violation of human rights conventions, soldiers have dragged off minors to be held in prolonged detention. According to Mohammed Abu Srour of the Youth Center, “For weeks it has been constant tear-gas attacks, and almost every night we have had kids taken up in IDF sweeps. Sometimes as many as 10 at a time, and kids as young as 13. They are using fear as a deterrent, and they know that youth and youth organizers would be core to any unified resistance.”
According to Abu Srour, these attacks appear to be a form of “preemptive strike” aimed at paralysing the grassroots Palestinian resistance as Israel plans its next moves against the backdrop of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The popular committees being targeted in places like Aida and Nabi Saleh operate independently of the Palestinian Authority, which is undergoing a terminal crisis of legitimacy in the eyes of the populations it claims to represent, not least because of its de facto collusion with the status quo of the Occupation and its enrichment of crony capitalists among Palestinian elites. The organizing activity of the committees overlaps formally and informally with the work of local social institutions, such as the Aida Youth Center, whose cultural programming Habshe has helped to lead for the past decade, along with Abu Srour and Amira.
Dramatically hemmed in on one side by the separation Wall, and named in a recent survey as the most heavily tear-gassed location on the planet, Aida camp is renowned as both a site of youth resistance as well as artistic production, ranging from the graffiti and murals that cover the Wall to The Key of Return itself, a large-scale work of social sculpture curated by the Youth Center. For Palestinian refugees, the key is a crucial symbol of the UN-sanctioned right to return to the homes and lands expropriated with the creation of Israel in 1948 (often referred to as ), and again in the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967. In 2008, to mark the Nakba’s 60th anniversary, community members designed and fabricated a one-ton, nine-meter steel key to be displayed at the entrance of the camp. The Aida key has become a landmark symbol of collective memory in the West Bank, and it serves as a stark reminder to all that the cause of the refugees cannot be left off the table in any just solution of the Israeli/Palestine national conflict. In 2012, this site-specific object was temporarily relocated to Berlin’s Biennial — a prominent international art platform in a city whose own landscape is haunted by the history of expulsion, dispossession, and genocide (and, in the present, facing a rising wave of xenophobia and Islamophobia).
Habshe oversaw the arduous logistics of transporting the project from the West Bank, and served as its interpreter and an artistic ambassador of sorts. While in Berlin, he met a member of MTL+, also participating in the Biennial as part of Occupy Museums. Subsequently, he became a member of the collective, operating on the ground in Palestine, and ultimately with the Decolonize This Place initiative, which adopted the Palestinian freedom movement as an essential strand of its work (along with de-gentrification, indigenous struggles, black liberation, and global labor campaigns). The group’s organizing on this front has been aligned with the cultural and academic wing of the Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions movement initiated by Palestinian civil society in 2005 and gaining traction in recent years all across the cultural field. Among the campaigns undertaken by Decolonize This Place was the Dignity Strike project in April 2017, in support of Palestinian hunger strikers. In the Fall of 2016, the group also targeted Artis, the arts nonprofit that takes delegations of high-profile art world personnel to experience the Israeli art scene — an overt example of cultural institutions colluding with the “artwashing” techniques of Brand Israel. According to the Decolonize This Place slogan projected by the Illuminator onto the organization’s New York building, “BDS is the floor not the ceiling.” BDS, in other words, is a tactical means of exposing to the world Israel’s apartheid policies, but it is not a sufficient end in itself. Further, some Israelis themselves have embraced Boycott From Within, demanding what political and cultural theorist Ariella Azoulay calls the “right not to be a perpetrator.”
With the continuing fallout from Trump’s Jerusalem policy move, the war on the BDS movement has intensified. Last week, the Israeli government issued a list of 20 international BDS-friendly organizations whose members, many of them Jewish, will be barred from entering Israel. The move will drastically impact the critical face-to-face contact between solidarity groups and Palestinians, hampering the flow of first-hand international testimony about human rights abuses on the ground. Lavishly funded lawfare campaigns, aimed at harassing organizers and tying up their organizational resources in the courts, have also escalated, in accord with the Israeli government’s isolation of BDS as the main threat to its program of settlement expansion. Academic organizations that passed BDS resolutions, like the American Studies Association, have been plagued with frivolous lawsuits, while others, like the MLA, which narrowly failed to do so, have begun to see a wave of resignations among their membership.
In the world of mass entertainment, Lorde generated a mountain of media coverage when she became the latest highest-profile musician to cancel a show in Israel. More than a hundred well-known artists and writers defended her decision in a public letter. Soon thereafter, hip-hop star Vic Mensa published a powerful report in Time magazine (video below) based on his experience in Palestine as part of a delegation of black American activists and artists organized by the Dream Defenders, that highlighted the affinities between white supremacy in the United States and Israeli Apartheid.
The artworld has been slower to respond to the BDS call, but important developments in recent years have included a letter issued in 2014 by more than 100 prominent artists and critics protesting Creative Time’s decision to partner with Technion University (heavily involved in Israeli military research) in showing its traveling Living as Form exhibition of activist art. The following summer saw an unauthorized “occupation” of the Israeli National Pavillion by G.U.L.F. during the Venice Biennale and the launch of a “Artists’ Letter for Palestine.”
A promising sign that these accumulating efforts are shifting the political terrain of the arts was the publication last year of Assuming Boycott: Resistance, Agency, Cultural Production edited by critic Kareem Estefan, Vera List Center director Carin Kuoni, and Queens Museum director Laura Raicovich. The editors placed BDS within a broad spectrum of contemporary arts activism (including groups like Gulf Labor/G.U.L.F and Liberate Tate) that targets the hypocrisy of cultural institutions whose public mission is often at odds with the heinous conduct of their funders and supporters. The volume quickly moves beyond any “debate” about the merits of BDS, dismantling arguments, for instance, that equate the movement with Anti-Semitism, or with the curtailing of free speech. Its authors offer a variety of affirmative analyses of boycott as a tactic or cultural genre with rich historical roots dating back to the Anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa and beyond. Though the book does not constitute a formal endorsement of BDS on the part of its editors (or its high-profile endorsers such as New York Times critic Holland Cotter), its publication is a significant indication of the increasing legitimacy of BDS among the artworld intelligentsia and implicitly extends an invitation to push the movement further. In response, punitive attacks are guaranteed, as witnessed when the Queens Museum board voted to cancel a state-funded celebration of Israel’s 80th anniversary because it was a “political event.” The decision was reversed due to a storm of pro-Zionist outrage which targeted Raicovich herself.
Unlike the international solidarity endorsers of BDS, or the headline artists, like Roger Waters and Brian Eno, who pressure their counterparts to boycott Israel, most Palestinians, whose everyday life is dependent on Israeli goods and services, employment, and mobility, are not in a position, practically speaking, to join the boycott. Their struggle for dignity, and ultimately, for their freedom, comes with great hardship, and for many, at the cost of their liberty and their lives. BDS endorsements may seem remote, and even ineffectual, from the perspective of repression on the ground. At the time of writing, we learned that Habshe has just been released from prison (further details are as yet unknown), but Amira is still in prison under “administrative detention” that does not require the authorities to file charges, and Tamimi herself could be handed a 14 year sentence for that famous slap. Many others who do not enjoy their relative visibility are faced with equally harsh forms of punishment.
Yet, for many signatories, endorsing BDS is not a simple checklist event. It has been a gateway into deeper engagement with the daily lives and struggle of Palestinians. According to Kyle Goen, an artist responsible for many of the dynamic graphics behind Decolonize This Place, “BDS is not just a tool of negative pressure on an oppressive regime, but also a form of creative solidarity between people.” A statement from the Decolonize This Place collective elaborates: “Solidarity is not just a thing one asserts, but an activity and relationship through which we sustain and care for one another, whether in the space of a jail cell, a social center, a direct action, or even a long-distance campaign of images and words in which communicating truths is also a means to building power together.”
With worldwide refugee numbers surging from year to year, administrative detention, house eviction, transborder expulsion, and mass incarceration have become the scourges of our time. In the case of Palestine, the historical backdrop to these torments is the ongoing population transfer from lands seized for Zionist settlement. Habshe, our friend and comrade, and those like him who are defying the savage rule of military decree cannot be left to stand alone. International attention to their detention makes a huge difference to their treatment. Participating in the more organized forms of action, such as BDS and institutional divestment campaigns, is the least we can do. And if the ferocity of the backlash from Israeli authorities is any guide, they are already achieving a lot.
As art historian David Joselit puts it, “art is a currency” in the global financial, cultural, and media ecosystem. It can be used as a currency of oppression, as in Israel’s artwashing efforts, or it can be a counter-currency of imagination and community across borders when it is deployed by small-scale formations like those mentioned in this article: Aida Youth Center, Decolonize This Place, Dream Defenders, and BDS-driven groups. As MTL puts it, “The arrest of Habshe is an assault on the transformative potential and role of art as a practice of freedom. Israel understands that engaged artists and their ideas are more dangerous than bullets because they penetrate the soft core of its propaganda machine while bypassing state institutions, and they make new social relations on the pathway to liberation.”