One of the world’s most renowned conductors, Barenboim is also a famous peace activist, founding his ‘West-Eastern Divan’ orchestra (along with his friend Edward Said) in 1999. Based in Spain, the orchestra brings together Israeli, Palestinian and Arab musicians.
But though Barenboim has conducted concerts in the West Bank (the first held in Ramallah in 2005), he has been refused permission by the Israeli authorities to perform in the Gaza territory. Barenboim holds joint Israeli-Argentine nationality (as well as being given honorary Palestinian citizenship) and Israel forbids travel into Gaza for its civilian citizens. Gaza is governed by Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel, which imposed a blockade to the region in 2006 (though conditions of the blockade have recently been eased). Therefore, the concert was co-ordinated with the United Nations and Mr Barenboim entered the Gaza Strip through Egypt.
The ‘peace concert’ was performed by 25 European musicians travelling with Mr Barenboim. After thunderous applause in the hall of the al-Mathaf Cultural House in Gaza City, Mr Barenboim told the audience that apart from being “tremendously good musicians”, his orchestra was made up of people who “care about humanity”. And he described the concert as a “gesture from the whole of Europe for you, Gaza”.
Gaza currently only has one dedicated music school, the Al-Qattan, which specialises in teaching children the Arabic instruments of the Kanoun and the Oud. The Kanoun is an ancient oriental stringed instrument which has 86 strings resting across a large board and the Oud is similar to a guitar. Interviewed by the BBC, the director of the school, Ibrahim al-Najjar, said that the visit by Barenboim’s orchestra was “very important” to Palestinians, for both cultural and civic reasons. Mr al-Najjar also gave a special interview about his school, which has 87 students, mostly between 7 and 12 years old. He spoke of the importance of music for the children of Gaza, because of the many problems they have faced following the war. With little in the way of other recreation facilities such as sport and playgrounds, music gives the children something to enjoy and love. Fourteen-year-old Karim was a student of the school and says that when she is sad, “she feels happier” after playing her Oud.
Other concert goers spoke of the importance for their children of seeing Mr Barenboim conducting a concert in Gaza. As an Israeli performing for Palestinians, one teacher said it would not only bring a message of peace, but also help her students to think before judging people.