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‘Offensive’ Gaza photo exhibition gets reprieve

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MONTREAL — The owners of the property housing Cinéma du Parc withdrew their demand that the cinema remove an exhibition of photos taken in Gaza, apparently mostly in the aftermath of Israel’s military offensive over December 2008 and January 2009.

The exhibition, which is described by the Quebec-Israel Committee (QIC) as “offensive, manipulative and dishonest,” is now slated to tour across Canada.

The exhibition’s organizer, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), said Feb. 22 that the cinema had received an e-mail from Lieba Shell, the legal representative for the landlord Gestion Redbourne PDP Inc., that the exhibition could continue until its scheduled closing Feb. 28.

The exhibition, entitled “Human Drama in Gaza,” consists of 44 large-scale photos said to been taken before, during and after the 22-day conflict between Israel and Hamas by professional photographers from Israel, the Palestinian territories and western countries.

It opened Jan. 15, and partly coincided with the independent cinema’s screening of the French-Israeli documentary Rachel, about the 2003 death of young American activist Rachel Corrie while protesting the Israeli army’s presence in Gaza.

The exhibition was open for a month before Redbourne demanded that it be taken down immediately, under penalty of legal action. The order cited  a clause in the lease with the cinema that the space is for “purely cinemagraphic use.”

The owners were apparently responding to complaints from the public that the exhibition was anti-Israel. The cinema is located in the Place du Parc shopping centre on Park Avenue, and the exhibition was viewable without having to be a client of the cinema.

CPJME’s lawyer Mark Arnold countered that a photo exhibition did constitute such use, and that another clause in the lease states that the tenant may host “presentations, meetings, viewings or other similar activities.”

The cinema, which is owned by Roland Smith, also pointed out that it had hosted almost 40 other photo exhibitions, some related to social or political issues, over the years, without complaint from Redbourne.

Most of the photos depict everyday life in Gaza amid the destruction after the conflict. Some are disturbing; one, for example, is of a child’s burial and many are of people suffering.

CPJME spokesperson Grace Batchoun said the organization bought the rights to the photos from the news agencies Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Getty Images.

This was the Canadian première of the exhibition, and CJPME plans to show it next in Ottawa at a venue being finalized, she said. The intention is to continue the tour in Toronto, London and the west.

QIC executive director Lucian del Negro said that, while the QIC finds the exhibition morally reprehensible, it does not believe it crosses any legal lines and therefore did not make any objection.

“The exhibition is without context. It’s as if you show photos of Berlin after it was bombed [during World War II] without explaining the reasons why, no matter how unfortunate that is,” he said.

While the exhibition cannot be accused of incitement by legal definition, del Negro said it does “misrepresent what happened and uses half-truths to demonize Israel, while appealing to people’s basic instinct to sympathize with human misery.”

Nevertheless, he said the QIC believes in freedom of expression and grants that democratic right to Israel’s opponents. It also did not wish to give publicity to what he termed an event of “marginal interest.”

“We did not see the need to intervene, which would simply have given them the publicity they thrive on,” del Negro said.

The QIC did not raise the issue privately with the cinema because, del Negro said, it has been fair to Israel in the past, such as hosting an Israeli film festival, organized by the Sephardi community.

At that time, he recalled, the anti-Israel camp had protested and even tried to shut down the festival.

CJPME, which claims 16,000 “adherents,” says that it believes in an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that all parties must be held to the same standard.

However, as outlined in its presentation to the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism last summer, CJPME accuses Israel of abusing international human rights law “daily” and charges that its occupation of Palestinian territories “most certainly has elements resembling those of South African apartheid.”

Batchoun said that after the news broke of the demand for the exhibition’s closure, CPJME and the cinema received 4,000 e-mails of support and only about dozen opposed.

CPJME president Thomas Woodley claimed in a statement that the attempt to terminate the exhibition was “a political manoeuvre intended to block access to information regarding the Israeli assault on Gaza last winter, and during which several violations of human rights have been identified.”

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