Abbas Opens Empty $24 Million Palestinian Museum in West Bank

  • Arab-Israeli conflict to be presented in art, artifacts, films
  • New Palestinian culture shrine features ‘Garden of Resistance’

President Mahmoud Abbas hailed a new museum chronicling Palestinian culture on Wednesday, saying the $24 million glass and limestone structure would help to unify a people scattered through the West Bank, Gaza Strip and around the world.

Abbas during ribbon cutting.

Photographer: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Its galleries were bare, however, following a rift between the museum and its ousted director, perhaps saying as much about the current state of the Palestinian people and its leadership than any exhibit would.

“We are in a deadlock,” Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said in a phone interview. “At this point, we are unable to be optimistic about either ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or our own internal splits.”

Opening Show

The wedge-shaped Palestinian Museum, built on a terraced hillside outside Ramallah, was meant, in large part, to deliver the Palestinian narrative about their claims to one of the most contested tracts of land on the globe. The opening show was to exhibit possessions Palestinians took with them when hundreds of thousands fled or were forced from homes in present-day Israel during fighting surrounding its 1948 creation. But the museum’s board replaced its director before the inauguration, leaving the 3,500 square meters (37,674 square feet) of gallery space empty.

Attendees at the inauguration.

Photographer: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

“We were very disappointed,” the museum’s chairman, Omar al-Qattan, said in an interview at the site Tuesday. “The board wanted a clear exhibition plan, especially for the opening, and a really good team in place.”

Opening the facility before it could stage an exhibition was an embarrassment that stemmed from poor coordination between government officials and museum organizers, said Jehad Harb, a researcher at the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.

“It was indeed a disappointment because they raised expectations with a museum of such great size,” he said.

Virtual Exhibits

The museum plans to build its permanent collection over time while staging exhibits at affiliated international institutions such as the Dar el-Nimer foundation in Beirut where “At the Seams,” a show on the political history of Palestinian embroidery, opens May 26. The new director, Mahmoud Hawari, said he will also focus on making the artwork and artifacts available online, given that distance and Israeli military restrictions will impede many Palestinians from reaching the museum.

Although its walls are still empty, some of the floor space bears the names of Palestinian communities around the world and their distance from Bir Zeit -- including the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, scene of the 1982 slaughter by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen during Israel’s invasion of its northern neighbor.

Outside the building, designed by the Dublin firm of Heneghan Peng, the hillside is planted with 69 varieties of flora grown in the West Bank, from marjoram and terebinth to the crimson Judas tree and Palestine Oak. At the center of the slope is the Garden of Resistance, where al-Qattan says an ancient olive tree has “special resonance” and symbolizes “the relation of the Palestinians to the land and hanging on.”

‘We Are Here’

“The opening of this museum will tell the world that we were here, and we are here to stay to build our Palestinian state,” Abbas said at the ceremony.

Abbas’s lofty words belied the frustration many Palestinians feel about their situation after more than two decades of failed peace efforts. The authority of his limited self-rule government has been eroded by its failure to end half a century of Israeli occupation and the rift with the Gaza Strip, ruled by the militant Hamas group for the past nine years. Deadly turmoil across the Middle East has turned the Palestinians’ statehood aspirations into a sideshow on the world stage.

If new presidential elections were held today in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the 81-year-old Abbas would be out of the office he has clung to long after his term expired, upset by Hamas, a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed. His Fatah party, long the standard bearer of the Palestinian cause, has no known succession plan. In this context, the bareness of the museum resonated beyond its empty halls.

“We are experiencing a crisis of leadership,” Abusada said from Gaza. “There is no strategy on how to end the Palestinian divide.”

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