Burning Man-style event in West Bank stokes controversy

Burning Man-style event in West Bank stokes controversy

Israeli organizers insist gathering won’t be political and Palestinians are welcome, but critics say its location on disputed territory north of Dead Sea can’t be ignored

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

A Midburn participant twirls a flaming baton at the second annual festival modeled after America's Burning Man on May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
A Midburn participant twirls a flaming baton at the second annual festival modeled after America's Burning Man on May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

An Israeli Burning Man-style event has sparked controversy among members of the festival community over its planned venue in the West Bank.

Organizers of Dead Sea Burn, which will be held in April in an open area just east of the Beit Ha’arava settlement, wrote on the event’s website that they view the location “as an opportunity for co-operation between us and the Jordanian or Palestinian populations, and we are working hard to create such cooperation.”

But on the festival’s Facebook group, dozens of posts have been published in recent days by Burning Man regulars and others lamenting the decision to hold an event touting inclusion in disputed territory where Palestinians are under military rule.

The 160 acres of land on which Dead Sea Burn will be held falls under the jurisdiction of Beit Ha’arava, a kibbutz. Military law bars Palestinians from entering settlements, though special permits are granted for construction workers and other employees.

The Dead Sea Burn event was organized after the Israeli affiliate of the US-based Burning Man festival, Midburn, announced that its next festival would only be held in 2021.

Midburn began holding holding an annual event in the Negev in 2014.

The festival is modeled after the annual week-long event held in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, where participants set up a temporary city “creating a platform which will allow a communal life style, creativity, art and radical self-expression,” according to the festival website. Midburn plays on the words midbar (Hebrew for “desert”) and “burn” — the culmination of any Burning Man event, when a wooden effigy of the proverbial Man is burned. The festival is described as an experiment in community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.

Partygoers dance during the second annual ‘Midburn’ festival, the Israeli version of ‘Burning Man’ on May 24, 2015. (Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

After several successful events, locals in nearby Sde Boker began complaining of noise pollution and damage festival-goers were causing the area, forcing Midburn to scope out a new location. Last year, organizers received initial approval to hold the event in a military training zone in the south. But several months before the event, the IDF rescinded the permit, saying it would need to use the area for drills.

With no Midburn event on the calendar until 2021, dedicated festival-goers Yaron Ben Shushan and Kobi Biton created Dead Sea Burn, which won’t technically be affiliated with Midburn or the US-based Burning Man, but still seeks to offer the same type of experience for attendees.

Recognizing the controversy behind the location, Ben Shushan said in a post to the event’s Facebook group that while “it is indeed beyond the Green Line, in recent days there has been talk about annexing this territory to the State of Israel.”

Following the late January unveiling of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which envisions all settlements as well as the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea area coming under full Israeli sovereignty, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to immediately annex parts of the West Bank. However, the US has since warned against immediate annexation, saying it wants to coordinate the measure in a process that will likely take months. Netanyahu has accordingly tempered his statements on the matter, saying he will only carry it out if he wins the upcoming March election and in coordination with Washington.

Revelers at Midburn on May 24, 2015 (Photo by Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Ben Sushan insisted the April event will be apolitical in nature and said he hoped Palestinians would attend.

“At a [Burning Man] in Nevada I [found myself] situated next to a caravan of Palestinians. I discovered wonderfully enlightened people with very similar desires to mine with regards to [ideas of] peace and camaraderie between all of the earth’s inhabitants,” he wrote on the event page.

But another member of the Facebook group wrote that any event located in such territory is inherently political, adding that the Dead Sea Burn “put the ‘party’ in ‘apartheid.'”

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