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On Feb. 18, around 150 children aged between eight and 15 from refugee camps scattered around the Gaza Strip boarded buses and were taken to the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center for a screening of the animated feature Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
The event had been arranged by the Gaza Children’s Cinema initiative, a volunteer-based group aiming to bring cinematic relief to young Gaza residents, to provide a “creative space where kids can just be kids” while surviving the “bitter reality of siege loss, hardship and war.” While it may have appeared rather unspectacular by Western standards, the screening was considered something rather special.
Decades of political and military unrest, rising conservatism under the Hamas-led leadership and the incalculable consequences of the Israeli occupation and, later, strict blockade, had seen all dedicated cinemas close across Gaza, an overcrowded and beleaguered territory where more than 70 percent of the population is under 19. The children’s initiative, founded in the summer of 2013, had managed to host around 160 screenings across the strip, most in community-based libraries. But their size and limited technical capabilities had restricted much of these to shorts, with children forced to stand or sit on the floor.
The Said al-Mishal Cultural Center, the second-largest theater in the territory and located in Gaza City’s congested Beach refugee camp, was different: a proper screen in a darkened hall, cushioned seats and something that could be equated to a normal cinema experience. As such, Gaza Children’s Cinema decided to make it like this as much as possible, getting their young guests to queue up outside, giving them tickets and serving popcorn.
“The kids were so excited,” says Ayman Qwaider, co-founder of Gaza Children’s Cinema. “They watched the movie and were then given space to reflect on what they had seen and how it had impacted them.”
At around 6.30 p.m on Aug. 9, following rising tensions between Israel and Hamas and weeks of on-off violence, the building housing the Said al-Mishal Cultural Center was struck by 10 missiles fired by Israeli warplanes. All five stories came crashing to the ground in a matter of seconds.
The Israeli military, which shared video of the airstrike, claimed the building was targeted because it was “used by the Hamas terror organization’s interior security forces for military purposes.” This claim was rebuked by several Palestinian sources, including one referenced in the Israeli media.
While nobody was killed in that particular attack, news of the center’s destruction began to reverberate around the world.
On hearing what had happened, Qwaider — who now lives in Perth, Australia — “spontaneously” took to Twitter for a widely shared post explaining the destruction and his devastation at the loss, which he said was written “with tears and powerlessness.”
The Gaza Children’s Cinema followed this up with a statement on its website: “The Said Al-Mishal Cultural Center provided spaces of entertainment and joy for generations of children and young people in Gaza; it is in total ruins now.”
In the days that followed and in defiance of the attack, local musicians and a circus group would perform on the rubble. On Aug. 16, a 14-strong group of noted British playwrights and directors — including Phyllida Lloyd, director of Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady (which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar), Rufus Norris, director of The National Theater, and Vicky Featherstone, artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre — signed a letter in The Guardian condemning the destruction.
“Since its establishment in 2004, Al-Mishal served as a home for hundreds of plays, ceremonies, exhibits, musical performances and national ceremonies. It was the venue of choice for theatre companies in Gaza and a space for Gaza’s top musical acts,” it read. “The center also included recreational activities for children who were affected by three successive wars in Gaza, including the first dabke school for 250 children. It is a devastating loss for the already isolated community.”
The statement also said how the signatories were “deeply shocked” that the attack hadn’t been widely reported in the British press and offered their support to their “friends and colleagues who describe their great rage and deep pain at the obliteration of this symbol of Palestinian culture and identity.”
“We support all efforts to continue Al-Mishal’s mission and the campaign for the center’s reconstruction,” it added.
The letter is one of several signed by international artists in recent years aimed at Israeli activities in Gaza, most either backing the growing BDS movement — a pro-Palestinian activist group that seeks to cut, among other things, global cultural ties with Israel — or supporting the rights of those who choose to boycott (such as New Zealand’s Lorde earlier this year).
But the destruction of the center, like much of the devastation that has afflicted Gaza over the past decade, will likely soon be consigned to the footnotes of its tragic history, despite any significance it may have held.
For Qwaider, however, the decision to destroy Al-Mishal marks a worrying turning point in the conflict with its neighbors.
“Now Israel has moved from killing our people and destroying our homes and moved to trying to kill our culture,” he says. “And that’s the scary part for us. It’s culture. It’s what many generations have given us. And they’re now trying to obliterate this.”
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