The mayor of New Zealand’s capital vetoed plans to light up one of the city’s iconic buildings in the colors of the Palestinian flag, after he was told by the government that it might upset Israel.
The Michael Fowler Centre, a concert and convention hall in central Wellington, was lit up with the colors of Ukraine’s flag days after Russian forces invaded in February.
It was also illuminated last year in support of trans rights.But when city councilor Tamatha Paul spearheaded an initiative to light up the building with the Palestinian colors ahead of Nakba Day, Mayor Andy Foster nixed the plan.
Marked every year on 15 May, Nakba Day commemorates the 1948 ethnic cleansing of approximately 800,000 Palestinians before and after the State of Israel was declared over the ruins of Palestine’s villages, towns and cities.
According to The Dominion Post, the mayor stopped the initiative, “after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) expressed concerns about Israeli sensitivities.”
The illumination “had been ready to go ahead on Monday until Foster took advice from MFAT and was told the act ‘could be construed as state recognition’ of Palestine,” the newspaper added.
The mayor “confirmed he did not seek outside advice during recent decisions to light the center in Ukrainian and trans colors,” according to the newspaper.City councilor Paul condemned the “double standards” by politicians, adding that the mayor “is democratically elected by all people including Wellington Palestinians who have been personally affected by the Nakba and have a right to remember their history.”
The ban would appear to be another example of Palestine and Palestinians being treated as an exception in the supposedly democratic “West.” On Sunday, police in Berlin attacked and detained activists merely for wearing traditional Palestinian scarves, amid a sweeping ban on demonstrations in support of Palestine.
Activists in Wellington, just like those in the German capital, decided not to take it lying down.
On Monday evening, the solidarity group Justice for Palestine carried out a “guerrilla projection” onto public structures.
“The flag of Palestine and Shireen Abu Akleh lit up Te Whanganui-a-Tara tonight on the side of Te Papa museum,” Justice for Palestine said on Facebook, using the Maori name for the city.
“Mayor Foster with advice from MFAT stopped us from lighting up the Michael Fowler Centre with the Palestinian colors. But we did it anyway,” the group added.
Alternative Jewish Voices New Zealand condemned the government and city action for silencing Palestinians.
“Again, Palestinian expression was forbidden because someone might complain. Forget the validity of the complaints – there were none to evaluate,” the solidarity group said. “The mere prospect of Palestinian stories or the display of a Palestinian flag was problematized in advance.”
John Minto, chair of Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa, wrote to Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta asking her to “rescind the advice of MFAT officials and remove objection to the Wellington City Council lighting up the Fowler Centre in the colors of the Palestinian flag.”
But according to correspondence seen by The Electronic Intifada, no response was received either from Mahuta or her officials.
Despite the ban in Wellington, Palestine solidarity events did proceed on public property in Auckland and Christchurch.There has also been criticism of the lackluster response from the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern over the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. On Sunday, days after it happened, Mahuta tweeted that “Aotearoa New Zealand is deeply saddened by the death of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin and the violence at her funeral.”
Aotearoa is the Maori name for the country.
“We call for an independent, transparent and thorough investigation into the circumstances of her death,” the foreign minister added.Mahuta, the first Indigenous woman to hold New Zealand’s top diplomatic post, failed to mention who killed Abu Akleh – all evidence overwhelmingly points to Israel – or who attacked her funeral – again Israel. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to Mahuta’s belated statement drew media attention.
“It’s embarrassing that after five days, this lukewarm statement is the best Aotearoa could do,” one of many critics wrote.