Attacks on Palestinian cultural spaces deepen internal social conflicts

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  October 7, 2022

Recent attacks on Palestinian cultural centers have targeted those seeking to re-imagine and redefine Palestinian identity. The Israeli media has been more than happy to exploit the conflict.

Amid the systemic Israeli assault on Palestinian armed resistance in the West Bank, Palestinians have also been exposed to an attack from within — on the imagination, freedom of expression, and negotiations of identity within Palestinian cultural spaces.

On August 2, one of Ramallah’s grassroots youth-led cultural centers, al-Mustawda3 [1], posted an open letter on its social media account. The letter was preceded by a declaration on June 27 that the cultural venue would be closed indefinitely following events that took place on the evening of June 17, when a public musical performance for Jerusalem-born Palestinian artist Bashar Murad in al-Mustawda3 was abruptly cancelled. 

“The bundle of broken glass and vandalized cars were only the beginning,” the statement read. 

This was the first of several cultural events that would face similar interruption, often preceded or followed by violence from groups of Palestinian attackers. In the weeks that followed, the unfolding of Palestinian social conflict was on full display for the Israeli media, which rushed to cover the wave of attacks in typical colonial fashion. Why were these attacks happening? To hear the Zionist media’s narrative, the events that were shut down were “gay parties” that became the target of unnamed “Jihadi” groups. 

The transparent exercise in pink-washing is of course to be expected. But more concerning still are the attacks themselves when stripped of the orientalist sensationalism of the Israeli press. The reality of this wave of repression — its motivations, the identities of the social groups involved, and their political alignments — is more intricate than the narrative of the Israeli media (or, indeed, the narrative of the attackers as it was echoed on social media) would suggest.

This episode of social conflict is concerning not only because of the active denial of people’s right to safety, but also because of the curtailment of their freedom to imagine, confront, and challenge issues within Palestinian society. The danger here becomes that any attempt to re-imagine and redefine Palestinian identity in its different facets will be weaponized and used against the Palestinians who choose to engage in those forms of expression.

The events of June 17

“Honestly, I don’t know how it all happened so quickly,” Bashar Murad told Mondoweiss through a Zoom interview from his home on June 19, just two days after the assault. 

In a neighborhood of Ramallah’s industrial zone, more than 40 men surrounded the cultural center and aggressively demanded that the event be shut down. This came mere hours before the Murad concert was scheduled to go live with attendees having already purchased tickets and gathered at the venue. 

As organizers and management inquired as to what was happening, threats of violence pushed them to immediately cancel the performance, offering to return funds to attendees, who refused reimbursement as a gesture of collective support and community.

Yet before they were able to usher out the attendees, the men who had gathered outside began to attack the Center and the people within it.

“My concern was the attendees. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt,” said Murad.

Murad’s concerns quickly became a reality as the assailants started breaking the windows of the cars parked outside, according to Murad and witnesses. Despite acquiescing to the demands and promptly canceling the performance (after intimidation), the group of assailants began to throw stones and broken tiles directly at the venue, even as the attendees were being ushered to leave the premises. 

In Palestinian dynamics, it is common for cultural events to be cancelled and shut down on days when Palestinians are killed by Israeli forces. Indeed, earlier that day, three Palestinians were extra-judicially assassinated by Israel in Jenin. 

Notwithstanding this consideration, the alleged justification of “preserving socio-cultural norms” seems more of a contortion of reality to position the assailants as vanguards of national camaraderie in order to sway public opinion. Indeed, some local media sources attempted to frame the attack in the context of Israel’s assassination of resistance fighters. 

However, a closer look at the incident shows a more tangled web of social relations, collective identification, politics, and economic interests.

“Even when people started to leave, [the assailants] started cursing at people,” Murad explained to Mondoweiss.

In tandem with the physical attacks, witnesses reported that the assailants hurled homophobic slurs at the attendees. At the same time, Palestinian Authority (PA) police spotted on the scene reportedly stood idly instead of intervening to halt the violence.

In fact, a video of the men threatening the organizers and management at the venue shows one of the assailants, Yamin Jarrar — son of Palestinian Sheikh Bassam Jarrar, who is widely critiqued for spreading false and unsubstantiated sociopolitical analysis — stating that “we are here representing all the honorable youth of Ramallah.”

Not only were al-Mustawda3’s glass walls destroyed, but the attendees were also harmed despite pleas to stop. Several were injured, two of whom were hospitalized that evening, but only after being held for questioning at the police station after the assault. 

No protection amid social fissures

What was both unsurprising and striking about the incident was that while the assailants persisted in their escalation to damage property and harm the attendees, it took PA police almost 40 minutes to intervene. 

According to witnesses that spoke to Mondoweiss anonymously, some of the assailants were seen conversing with officers on site, prior to physically assaulting attendees and vandalizing the center. 

Eyewitnesses also told Mondoweiss that the assailants accused the scheduled performance of being a “gay party,” as an ostensible justification for the violence that would follow (a framing which the Israeli media was quick to latch onto and repeat as fact).

Instead of holding the assailants accountable, the police took several attendees into custody, with the organizers and Murad in tow. Witnesses informed Mondoweiss that while the pretext of being taken to the police station was to protect the attendees and gather affidavits, none of those who were detained felt safe or protected enough to share their testimonies.

Further investigation by Mondoweiss indicates that the police did not only fail to hold the attackers accountable, but in fact mistreated the detained group, denying them proper care or support, leading the group to decline to provide their testimonies. “The police were not on our side, they didn’t seem to care much for our well-being and we didn’t feel like it was safe for us to provide our testimonies,” S., 33, told Mondoweiss the evening after the assault, still shaken.

In December 2019, Palestinian police were also reported to have stood by idly while three Palestinians were attacked for their sexual orientation. This inevitably raises the question of how safe Palestinian cultural venues are when sexual diversity is so readily weaponized to allow for violent repression, and also raises broader questions about what this means for the political landscape in Palestine.

Disinformation in every quarter

A firestorm ensued in Palestinian society, as the assaults during Murad’s concert became an issue of broad public debate on sexual diversity in Palestine.

“The next day, I open social media, and it’s all a storm of false information and rumors,” Murad told Mondoweiss. “There were many spreading the narrative of the attackers, framing the event as a ‘gay party,’ even though it wasn’t.” It was as though a scarlet letter now permanently marked the cultural venue, which continued to face harassment and social slander for more than two months later.

“As a result of the assault, we were also targeted by an incitement campaign, which was built on a false and fabricated narrative of the incident, including the defamation of the center,” the al-Mustawda3 statement read. 

According to Murad’s reading of social media communication on the days following the assault, it was evident that internal conversation in Palestinian circles not only criminalized the event, but also glamorized the assailants. 

Murad recalls going into self-imposed isolation following the media storm, which he felt was necessary for his own safety. “I had to stay in my home for days,” Murad told Mondoweiss.

Murad was placed at the center of the public debate and the demonization efforts, as videos of the assailants saying “Bashar is a piece of shit” and “gay people like Bashar will not pass” quickly spread on social media.

Mondoweiss conducted an independent review of the conversations on threads and forums referenced by Murad, confirming his claims. More than this, Jarrar, who was representing the crowd threatening al-Mustawda3, said in a recorded video: “we came in small numbers…but we will plant terror in the heart of anyone, in the heart of Bashar and others.” 

While that exchange was harrowing enough, the incident was further exacerbated by the simultaneous flood of articles and reports coming in from the Israeli press, which predictably jumped on the incident as a pink-washing opportunity.

Pink-washing, a common tool of Israeli cultural propaganda, casts Israel as a “gay haven” amidst a sea of Arab intolerance, despite the fact that Israel has committed abuses against Palestinians even when they are asylum-seekers based on their sexual identity. Palestinian activists have been challenging this form of agitprop for years, exposing it as a tool for whitewashing Israeli crimes.

Yet this recent iteration of Israeli Hasbara doubled the damage, as it fed into the narratives of the assailants, readily accepting the false claim of a “gay party” taking place in Ramallah. 

The role of Israeli media in perpetuating Palestinian conflict

The Jerusalem Post, for instance, published a piece titled “Palestinian activists ban ‘LGBT party’ in Ramallah,” while The Media Line repeated the narrative under the title “Palestinian Activists Ban Concert for LGBTQ Community in Ramallah,” and Newsngr went as far to bill the story as a “Palestinian LGBT party” that was “called off after jihad threats.” 

Murad may have been an easy target to promote the narrative carved by the Israeli media, as the pop artist has used his music to challenge and confront Israeli colonial dynamics and repressive norms in the region, including human rights violations against LGBTQ communities in Palestine.

Contrary to the reports of both the assailants and the Israeli media, the concert was not an “LGBTQ concert” or an “LGBT party.” Yet the repercussions of this disinformation persists beyond June 17. In the statement put out following the attack, al-Mustawda3 noted that “it has been a month, and until today we still face different forms of harassment.”

Elias Rizeq, 27, co-founder of al-Mustawda3 stressed alongside Murad that misinformation about the concert has not only harmed the venue, but also the attendees and their personal lives, and has also allowed for a renewed effort at weaponizing social vulnerabilities within Palestinian communities. 

This kind of violence was previously employed in a different manner — by the Israeli Shin Bet, when it threatened women and men with rape and exposing their sexual activities to their communities as a means of pressuring them to comply with Israeli interrogators.

Israeli media reports betrayed the typical colonial ineptitude in capturing the ways in which Palestinian social dynamics are impacted by the colonial occupation, as well as the shrinking spaces within which Palestinian social protection operates. 

For example, during the Unity Uprising of last year, Zionist social media was inundated with pink-washing statements which served to cripple Palestinian morale in the anti-colonial struggle, especially with the acceptance of sexual diversity still in its embryonic stages in Palestine.

While the struggle against homophobia in Palestine is not new, the speed and ease with which social media facilitated the misinformation has fomented social strife and internal fragmentation. This poses a danger to the internal social fabric of Palestinian society.

The emergence of a wider trend

Al-Mustawda3 was initially volunteer-based and slowly began to transform into a hub for artistic creativity and exploration for up-and-coming Palestinian artists and innovators. “It allowed others to define and redefine the space’s identity,” Riziq told Mondoweiss

The conditions imposed by the Israeli military occupation have hampered Palestinian capacities to address and work through social issues.

However, considering the center’s small size, it was left unprotected. This has been further complicated by Palestine’s weak governance system under the PA, as well as the continued prevalence of patriarchal community norms. “The place comes in a time of shrinking spaces, and it allows for a reclamation of the public nature of art.”

The conditions imposed by the Israeli military occupation, in light of intensified settler attacks and the continued annexation of Palestinian lands and resources, have also further hampered Palestinian capacities to address and attentively work through social issues.

“It’s so heart-breaking,” Murad said. “I don’t expect everyone to understand, but it’s hard that we can’t even have a conversation about our realities.”

Indeed, while the assailants yelled obscenities that reflect the intent to obstruct and stymie Palestinian efforts at developing a diverse Palestinian identity — having to also manage Israeli propaganda was especially exhausting. 

Worse still were the claims that “you are not from this land.”

“They told us ‘to go burn in hell’,” T. 27, who was at the June 17 assault, told Mondoweiss. Worse still were the claims that “you are not from this land,” coupled with threats of “we will show you, you wait and see.” 

That wasn’t only a threat. It signaled what would come after the Mustawda3 attack — a wider assault on cultural institutions.

The violence witnessed in al-Mustawda3 on June 17 was replicated in the weeks that followed, displaying a troubling trend of targeting cultural spaces and institutions by anonymous assailants. 

On July 8, just weeks after the assault on al-Mustawda3, a local theater was scheduled to launch its International Youth Theater Festival at Ramallah’s Ottoman Court, a notable local heritage site. Guests, students, and organizers of Ashtar Theater were attacked by a group of male assailants, according to witnesses. In a striking resemblance to what happened at al-Mustawda3, the group carried out its attack as organizers and guests were packing their materials after being threatened to close down the event.

According to eyewitnesses, some of the men seen at the site of the attack on Ashtar were also reported to have been seen during the attack on Murad’s event. 

So far, the Palestinian Police appear unable to locate and hold them accountable, failing once again to intervene and provide protection. “The police didn’t even allow us to get treatment for our injuries,” T. recalled from the evening at the police station after the assault on al-Mustawda3.

Carving out a contemporary Palestinian identity

Less than a month after the attack on Ashtar, on August 3, one of Palestine’s larger cultural institutions, the AM Qattan Foundation, released a statement about threats it received regarding an event meant to be held for a Palestinian artist from Nazareth, Jowan Safadi.

In a statement shared on social media, the Qattan Foundation stated:

“these events, which are odd and suspect in their source and goals, and which are infiltrating the social and cultural lives, threaten the continuity of Palestinian cultural work, including its continuation and congruity, as well as its social contribution to developing the Palestinian imagination of collective and individual identity.”

Beyond the individual traumas, this threat of violence and co-optation ultimately means Palestinian youth and communities that desire to change their societies are left to mitigate the damages that have been done. Al-Mustawda3 has been indefinitely shut down, and according to witnesses from the area, the police have kept the center under surveillance. Yet the identities of the assailants remain concealed despite the recurrences.

What many Palestinians are left with is an inability to cultivate diverse identities without being accused of “not belonging” to the Palestinian collective, of being regarded as aberrant, living outside of society. 

Murad rejects this notion. “The most important thing to point out is that while there were Palestinians who attacked these events,” he elaborates, “you need to also see the Palestinians organizing these events. This is the diversity of the Palestinian people.” 

This article is the first part in a two-part series. Part Two will discuss the social groups behind the attacks and their motivations.


  1. Al-Mustawda3 means “the storage unit” in Arabic, where the “3” resembles the Arabic letter “ع [‘ayn],” and is often informally used to denote the proper pronunciation of certain Arabic words when writing them in English script.

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss