The seizure of Ata Khatab: we cannot remain silent

Opinion: The seizing and jailing of a Palestinian dancer is part of the silencing of cultural critics in Israel, writes Nicholas Rowe.

The image shows two dancers, Ata Khatab and Sharaf Dar Zeid, performing in an urban area that looks damaged and under construction. The scene is from the award-winning film Dancing7Cities.
Ata Khatab (left) and Sharaf Dar Zeid in the award-winning film Dancing7Cities.

COMMENT: At 4am on February 2, Palestinian dancer and choreographer Ata Khatab was awoken roughly by Israeli soldiers in his home in the West Bank city of Al-Bireh, blindfolded, handcuffed, shoved into the back of a jeep and taken to the Al Moscobiyeh detention centre.

I found that opening sentence very difficult to write. Not because I have known Ata for 15 years, seeing him grow from a conscientious 13 year-old attending my dance classes and more recently working alongside him as a co-author and artistic collaborator. It is also not because I know that since 4am on that Tuesday morning he has been intimidated, interrogated, deprived and tortured by foreign soldiers.

No, my problem is more technical: as a writer I want to be concise, and yet convenient words like arrested, captured and imprisoned are so strongly wedded to other concepts like crime, due-process and justice. If I was to more simply write “Ata was arrested”, then queries like “Why? What did he do?” would inevitably gallop forward in the minds of readers not privy to daily life in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Like so many young artists in the Occupied Palestinian Territories abducted by Israeli soldiers during the past five decades, Ata did not do anything that a liberal humanist might consider illegal, unethical or immoral. And like those artists before him, he will not face a fair judicial process, he will be presented with charges that are cloaked in secrecy (under the well-exhausted guise of Israeli security) and he will not have an opportunity to contest his capture before a politically impartial judge. He will be placed in what the Israeli military innocuously calls administrative detention; a term that suggests some sort of after-school photocopying task.

As Judith Butler reflects, however, within this process Palestinians experience “forcible detention without a clear communication of crimes committed, and it can last indefinitely, since it deprives the detained of recourse to courts for review and release”. In the context of Covid-19, those imprisoned are exposed to greater risks of infection and denied adequate medical treatment.

Administrative detention has inexorably been used by the Israeli government to oppress and stifle creativity, productivity and cultural community in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for decades. Many male and female Palestinian artists who I have interviewed have experienced administrative detention, and reflect on their experiences of interrogation, torture and depravation.

Ata’s own father (a founder of the EL-Funoun Popular Dance Troupe and one of the leading pioneers of folk dance performance in Palestine) was captured and placed in administrative detention several times, in cycles that were extended and renewed for up to one year at a time.

Through this disputed legal caveat, the Israeli government has a well-exercised weapon aimed at disrupting local cultural activity and discouraging others from standing tall and dancing proudly. Maintaining the cultural exclusion of Palestinians, administrative detention entrenches what the leading Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem has recently acknowledged as as an apartheid regime of government in Israel. It inhibits creative, artistic activity amongst Palestinians, and restricts Palestinian artists from engaging with artists across the world.

In the case of Ata, this is very unfortunate, as he has so effectively worked with leading international artists, like Les ballets C de la B and KVS Theatre from Belgium, among others from around the globe. Ata has also critically investigated the complexities and challenges of cross-cultural artistic exchange in Palestine, within an article that we co-authored for a book on Grassroots Leadership and Arts for Social Change.

As a dance teacher for the next generation of Palestinian artists, Ata leads the El-Funoun dance training programme; most recently we collaborated on a dance film project. Ata has now been excluded from all local and global artistic activities and is held in small cell, until such time as the Israeli government feels inclined to release him. While artists around the world have taken to social media to protest his detention, on February 24 a closed military court determined he must spend another nine days in interrogation at Al Moscobiyeh, so Israeli soldiers might have more time to induce some form of ‘confession’ from him, to justify further detention.

At the same time, artists and academics inclined to point out this injustice and openly discuss the entrenched racism and apartheid policies that underpin the Israeli military’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are similarly at risk of exclusion. Cultural critics of the Israeli government are becoming increasingly ostracised and wrongly accused of anti-Semitism across Europe and the world. As Brian Eno recently pointed out, “This is the work of tyranny: create a situation where people are frightened enough to keep their mouths shut, and self-censorship will do the rest.”

For the sake of artists and cultural inclusion everywhere, we cannot remain silent on issues like the seizure of Ata Khatab.

Dr Nicholas Rowe is Professor of Dance Studies in the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries and UNESCO Chair in Dance and Social Inclusion. He lived in the Occupied Palestinian Territories from 2000-2008 and is the author of Raising Dust: A cultural history of dance in Palestine.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom: We cannot remain silent on issues like the seizure of Ata Khatab 1 March 2021.

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