Tourists come face-to-face with Eurovision’s darker side: ‘No pride in apartheid’
From ‘Gazavision’ to Hebron tours, Bel Trew meets the activists highlighting the competition’s controversies
What are they trying to do, protect you from the sun?” asks Issa Amro, a prominent Palestinian activist, flanked by Israeli soldiers who have just issued a military warrant for a group of tourists, who had come to meet him, to immediately leave.
This is Hebron, the largest city in the occupied West Bank and the only one with an Israeli settlement directly inside it.
The visitors are on a tour of the flashpoint area hosted by Breaking the Silence (BTS), an anti-occupation organisation run by Israeli veterans, many of whom served in the area.
Last week BTS erected a massive billboard in Tel Aviv, advertising its alternative tours to foreigners visiting Tel Aviv for Eurovision to teach newcomers about the “complex situation” in Israel and its occupation of the West Bank.
The banner, which sparked uproar among Israel’s right, played with the Eurovision slogan “dare to dream”, adding to it: “…of freedom” and an image juxtaposing a beachfront coastguard with an Israeli watchtower looking over Israel’s separation barrier with the West Bank.
Wednesday marked the start of the Eurovision semi-finals, and the first Breaking the Silence tour to coincide with song competition. BTS does not support a boycott of Israel, but campaigns to end the military occupation of the West Bank.
The gaggle of mostly European tourists they took around Hebron snaked through the settlement areas and streets of shuttered Palestinians shops.
At the last point of the tour when the group was due to meet Palestinian peace activists, the Israeli military issued a warrant temporarily designating the area as a “closed military zone”.
Everyone had to leave.
“Enjoy Eurovision,” Amro shouts to the retreating group he was not permitted to meet.
“One day we’ll have Hebron-vision. I promise,” he jokes.
This vignette is one of many to have underscored the tensions at this year’s Eurovision in Israel, one of the most political fraught and contentious ones yet.
It had an inauspicious start.
Just over a week before celebrations were due to kick off, and ahead of the arrival of Madonna, who is due to headline the finale on Saturday, the country looked like it was on the cusp of a war with militants in Gaza.
Palestinian armed groups fired nearly 700 rockets and projectiles at the south of the country in just two days.
Israel responded by pounding 350 targets within the besieged territory.
Thirty were killed on both sides, in one of the bloodiest upticks of violence since the 2014 war, before Egypt and the United Nations were able to broker a temporary and fragile ceasefire that still holds. For now.
Hackers also broke into a live-stream webcast of the competition with a false rocket alarm and images of explosions.
Viewers tuning in to the webcast on Tuesday were warned: “Risk of Missile Attack. Please Take Shelter,” under a fake logo of the Israeli army, followed by images of explosions near the Eurovision venue.
“Israel is NOT safe. You will see!”
Israel’s public broadcaster alleged that Hamas, the group that rules the Gaza Strip, was behind the hack.
In what can only exacerbate tensions, the week chosen for Eurovision coincides with several difficult anniversaries.
Wednesday, day two of Eurovision, is known as Nakba day (“day of the catastrophe”) by Palestinians, who each 15 May commemorate when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes during the conflict which surrounded the creation of Israel.
During last year’s protests for Nakba day, Israeli snipers killed nearly 60 people along the Gaza border fence, another bloody anniversary prominent in many minds.
Many are also angered by the location of Eurovision.
The Expo Centre in Tel Aviv, where the acts are performing, is built over the ruins of Palestinian village Shaykh Muwannis, while Eurovision’s sprawling seafront village is constructed over the ruins of a mostly Arab, pre-1948 neighbourhood called Al-Manshiyya.
And so the event has also been hounded by activists spearheaded by the Palestinian-led campaign Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS).
Earlier in the year the group recruited the support of dozens of British celebrities including Vivienne Westwood, actor Julie Christie and singer Peter Gabriel, who signed a letter published by The Guardian calling on the BBC to demand that Eurovision be relocated.
The BDS campaign, which is effectively outlawed by the Israeli authorities who passed legislation against it two years ago, has not prevented any of the competition’s 41 acts from joining in the show, or thousands flying into to enjoy the festivities.
However, it has seen a number of protests pop up across Israel and the Palestinian territories.
On Tuesday evening, while jubilant crowds gathered to watch the opening of Eurovision on huge screens at Tel Aviv’s Eurovision village, local and international activists blocked streets in other parts of the country’s commercial and cultural hub.
A few days ago, as the competition’s acts strutted down the red carpet, more than a dozen Israeli and international pro-Palestinian activists wearing blindfolds knelt in rows and tried to prevent people accessing the venue, saying they were protesting “cultural washing”.
More rallies have been planned for Saturday by “No Pride in Apartheid”, a protest group of Israeli feminists and anarchists.
In fact, an entire “protest” alternative to Eurovision is underway.
“Gaza Message”, saw Palestinian musicians on Tuesday play among the ruins of buildings bombed in the last round of Israeli strikes.
“Gazavision”, which mimics the Eurovision structure, will also be held later in the week as an entirely separate music competition showcasing the Palestinian talent forbidden to travel to international competitions.
It is unclear how much of an impact it has had. The Israelis have launched a determined PR campaign countering calls for a boycott, with Israeli public broadcaster Kan releasing a tongue-in-cheek musical advert, quipping that Israel is “much more” than a “land war and occupation”.
The government has taken a tough approach to the boycott movement that it accuses of having ties to “terrorism and antisemitism”.
A spokesperson from Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs tells The Independent that music is a means “best used to build bridges and unite people, not divide them”.
The ministry accuses the boycott movement of trying to manipulate public opinion on social media “to no success”.
“Such actions only reveal the true face of BDS – they have no interest in dialogue but rather try to promote division,” the ministry adds.
At the Eurovision village, as the semi-finals kicks off, most visitors are preoccupied with who is going to win.
“To be honest I haven’t really noticed anything about any protests but Eurovision is a moment where everyone comes together which is more important,” says Jan, from the Netherlands, who says it is particularly important for his country as its entrant is the favourite.
Michael Rice, the UK’s contestant, admits he has not heard much about conflict, or rocket fire, before he landed in Tel Aviv but saw there were some acts, like the Iceland’s entrant Hatari who visited Hebron and have called publicly for an end to the occupation.
“I don’t really know much about it, as I’m not really political, but I have seen a lot about the boycott movement,” he tells The Independent during a launch party held by the British embassy before Eurovision kicked off.
“But every country has something going on,” he adds.
Madonna, who is due to make a guest appearance on Saturday, has, however, come under fire, particularly because her Ray of Light foundation, a social justice program, supports a number of Palestinian projects, including funding teachers’ salaries at UN schools across Gaza.
The Queen of Pop has defended her decision to play, saying in a statement to Reuters: “I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be.”
“I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace.”
Breaking the Silence plans to run many more tours over the week.
Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli paratrooper and one of the leading members of the group, says that members of Eurovision delegations and even some performers have reached out to them to join tours.
“We have to end this military occupation for sake of Israelis and Palestinians. We are breaking the silence, part of our job is shedding a light on some of these hardships,” he tells The Independent.
“The thinking was that it was important that the people who came to enjoy this place, and the liberal values of Eurovision, take another step.
“That they don’t just enjoy the nightlife in Tel Aviv, the beach during the day, but understand the complexity of the place that they’re in,” he adds.
Many on their tour, who knew little about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict before getting on the bus, find themselves flanked and heckled by heavily armed settlers, as well as tailed by the military. They say it was important trip to take.
“Eurovision is an opportunity for Israel to present themselves as white washing what is going on here,” says Karl, 24, from Germany, who was on his first trip to the country.
“People have flocked to parties on the beach, they are waving the flags with no understanding of what is going on around them. This tour is called breaking the silence for a reason.”