Palestinian Art Under Israeli Occupation

Palestinian artists have continued to produce art about their culture and struggle for freedom throughout Israel’s occupation. Jacobin spoke with West Bank art students and the renowned painter and sculptor Sliman Mansour about the challenges they face.

Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour. (Elias Feroz)

As a Palestinian under Israeli occupation, it was never easy to express oneself freely about Israel’s policies even before the October 7 attacks by Hamas. Today this is even more difficult, as twenty-one-year-old student Rami Abdin (name changed for security reasons) from Jerusalem told Jacobin. Rami is studying at the renowned Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, which is an Israeli educational institution located just a twenty-minute walk away from Jerusalem’s Old City. Jacobin spoke with students of Bezalel Academy, who recounted several cases of Palestinian students being kicked out of the university without being summoned to a hearing committee since the postponed start of the last semester.

Tensions between Israeli and Palestinian students have increased significantly since the war began. “The war is, of course, always present here. Initially, I shared some artwork on Instagram by artists who drew attention to the suffering in Gaza,” says Rami. “I later found out that my Instagram profile was regularly shared in an Israeli Telegram group with the title ‘Calling out the Terrorists in Our Classrooms.’ I also received private messages from fellow students who accused me of supporting terror.” Since then, Rami has avoided discussing political issues at the academy and on social media. “It’s paradoxical,” he adds. “There are armed soldiers and settlers everywhere, but if we dared to address our situation under occupation or the suffering in Gaza in our art, we could get in a lot of trouble.”

The limits that Rami imposes on himself at Bezalel to protect himself and his family do not apply outside of the academy. However, his artistic work is sometimes ridiculed in the Palestinian community. “Some Palestinians consider art-related things, from an Islamic perspective, to be a sin. Others believe that art is only for girls, unless you create something about political issues. Political topics are always great among Palestinian communities.” While political issues seem to be banned at the art academy, they are being glorified in the Palestinian surroundings of the young artist. Hence, Rami’s artistic existence finds itself between two opposites.

Today, dozens of Palestinian students from the occupied territories attend Bezalel Academy, but it wasn’t always this way. The Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour also received his art education in Bezalel when he was a student, although he originally did not intend to study there. When Mansour applied for a scholarship from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in the 1960s, the church community set the requirement for scholarship recipients to enroll in the institution closest to their place of residence. Before 1967, the closest place of study for Palestinians from the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which was back then under Jordanian control) was the Lebanese capital, Beirut, if they were interested in studying art.

Sliman Mansour, Yaffa, 1979, oil on canvas, original size: 140cm x 120cm. (Courtesy of artist)

Mansour began his art studies at the Israeli institution in 1967. When Israel managed to conquer the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, and other areas in the Six-Day War of 1967, the political situation changed. The illegal occupation of East Jerusalem allowed Mansour to study at the Bezalel Academy, where he was the only Palestinian student from the occupied territories. After the war, he was informed by the LWF that he could continue his studies in Bezalel and that it would continue to support his education financially, whereupon Mansour changed his place of study.

The seventy-seven-year-old Mansour also remembers that when he was a student, most Israeli professors didn’t like his art very much because it was probably too political for them. Only one of his Israeli teachers always praised him and his paintings, as he mentioned in an interview with Jacobin. “Mr Hirsch always praised me for my work and emphasized that I paint with love. He thought this was very important,” Mansour relates. The artist likes to remember his time as a student and is still in contact with some of his fellow classmates, both Israeli and Palestinian.

Over the course of his life, however, Mansour often got into trouble with the Israeli authorities because of his art, which also led twice to a detainment. During the first intifada, his paintings were seen as symbols of Palestinian resistance because they dealt with Palestinian identity:

During the first intifada, the Israeli police confiscated a lot of our paintings, but they never told us why. For me, it was obvious that they didn’t like the portrayal of any kind of Palestinian identity. When I painted, for example, a woman who is working in the field, picking olives, they considered the painting to be something dangerous. Palestinian embroidery, a traditional Palestinian dress, or even just the colors red, green, black, and white [resembling the Palestinian flag] was something dangerous in their eyes. It also depended very much on the soldier or policeman who was in charge.

At that time, the artist and his colleagues had to come up with methods to ensure that his art was not confiscated. After all, confiscated work could not be sold:

During the ’80s and ’90s, we used to smuggle our paintings into cars. So, most of the work that we did at that time was in a size that fit the car. It was, for example, eighty centimeters by one hundred centimeters, not more. In these years, we also made an exhibition in al-Hakawati [which is a cultural center in Jerusalem], and then soldiers came and confiscated several paintings from the walls. In Ramallah, this kind of action happened even more frequently, but today they don’t come to exhibitions in Ramallah, where my studio is located, anymore. However, the killing and imprisoning of Palestinians in Ramallah, Nablus, and Jenin continues every day, even if they don’t target our art anymore.”

Mansour explains that he took an active part during the first intifada in demonstrations and other activities. In the current war, he feels very helpless since he is only able to view the suffering from a distance through the news. “Of course, we are participating with our hearts and our feelings in some way, but it is not active participation,” he told Jacobin. The ongoing war in Gaza also significantly influences his art, partly because Mansour lost friends there. Since the start of the war, Mansour has been less focused at work, and his pictures are less colorful than before. While Mansour is also known for his depictions of women wearing colorful traditional Palestinian dresses, his current art is dominated by gray tones. For the Palestinian artist, it is important to capture the reality of his life in his pictures. He is critical of Palestinian artists who never address the reality of the Israeli occupation in their art.

Sliman Mansour, Gaza, 2024, oil on canvas, original size: 115cm x 110cm. (Courtesy of artist)

He also criticizes the fact that many Israeli gallery owners avoid this form of “political” art. When Palestinian art is exhibited in Israeli galleries, it is mostly abstract art. Then the galleries can boast that they are diverse, but at the same time, any form of criticism of the political situation is missing. He sees art and culture in general as strong means of combating the dehumanization that Israel’s right-wing national government is perpetrating toward the Palestinians.

Before October 7, Rami and his colleague, twenty-three-year-old Azza Danoun (her name has also been changed for security reasons), had a similarly optimistic view of the influence that art can have on society. However, Azza also reports about the constant tension in Bezalel: “Since the beginning of the war, the Israeli and Palestinian students have been avoiding each other and not speaking to each other.” She finds it difficult to do creative work under these circumstances. But as a student at an art academy, she has no other choice because she has to stick to the deadlines to hand in her projects. “My art hasn’t changed much since the war, but I don’t share it on social media as I used to,” she says. Not because she’s afraid that there will be consequences for her, but rather because she feels uncomfortable posting her art while at the same time seeing the suffering just a few miles away via Instagram and other platforms.

Despite the feeling of hopelessness, it is important for Mansour not to lose the connection with his community. He also gives this advice to young Palestinian artists who, like him, live under Israeli occupation:

I always give them the advice to stay connected with your people and the Palestinian culture. We live in a time where individualism has become so important for artists all over the world. I think the aim of individualism is to get artists away from people. Maybe “individualism” is the wrong word. It’s more about egoism. As a Palestinian, if you have a problem with the checkpoint for example, you can speak or paint about this individual experience, of course. But sometimes some artists just focus on themselves. You should convey a message. Don’t waste your life just doing nice paintings for rich people. Of course, maybe you would get more money from it, but I think it’s a waste of time. You should have a message in your art, and your work should serve your community.