Who’s Afraid of a Tambourine?

Two months ago we wrote that Israel had prohibited the transfer of musical instruments into the Gaza Strip. In that post we quoted Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai’s response to a query submitted by Israeli parliamentarian Dov Khenin last July regarding the ban: “According to the information available, no applications to bring musical instruments into the Gaza Strip have been received for the past two years”, wrote the Deputy Defense Minister. Apparently we were mistaken – and so was the Deputy Defense Minister.

In March 2009, UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) submitted an application to transfer percussion instruments, drums, guitars and ouds (a stringed instrument popular in the Arab world), designated for a number of musical projects for children and youth in the Gaza Strip. In order for the army to consider the application, the musical instruments were classified as humanitarian goods, the import of which would not violate the ban on the entry of goods beyond the “humanitarian minimum” determined by the army.

After going through the standard, long and tiresome bureaucratic process of obtaining a permit to bring in humanitarian goods to Gaza, the musical instruments were transferred on July 4 – five months after the application was submitted to Israel. While international organizations can bring in certain goods for humanitarian projects (e.g. the transfer of learning materials is permitted only for schools operated by UNRWA), for Palestinians living in Gaza and for local organizations the ban on importing goods beyond the “minimum” remains unchanged.

The few music stores that exist in Gaza have started to run out of stock due to the restrictions on the import of their wares. Yehya Al-Jerou, the owner of a well-known Gaza store specializing in sound systems and musical instruments, used to import large quantities of goods from Israel and the West Bank every month up until June 2006. Due to the increased restrictions on the transfer of goods since then, he has been forced to start buying sound systems and musical instruments through an Egyptian dealer and import them via the tunnels – paying top dollar for low-quality merchandise.  

The high prices have deterred most private customers, and his main business is now in selling to institutions and local organizations trying to run musical programs. Apparently, according to Israel, these activities are not considered humanitarian, since they are not operated under the auspices of an international organization. Al-Jerou says that he does not even bother trying to arrange the import of musical instruments from Israel, due to the ban on goods that are not considered “humanitarian”.

If tambourines and other musical instruments pose a security risk in that they could “aid terrorist activity”, according to Vilnai, or, alternatively, are not sufficiently “humanitarian,” why does Israel allow international organizations to import them, but not local organizations?

The lack of transparency, inconsistency and vagueness that characterize Israel’s policies on the transfer of goods to the Gaza Strip continues to confuse not just Gaza residents and aid organizations, but apparently even the Deputy Defense Minister himself.

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