Just 15 years ago, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah was a symbol of resistance. But today a sense of dejection hangs over the Muqata – the site of Yasser Arafat’s last stand, where his heirs have been reduced to curating a museum in his honor.
Pessimism is etched on the face of Nasser al-Qudwa, the chairman of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. Both a senior Fatah official and one of the PA’s most experienced diplomats, the 65-year-old nephew of the former Palestine Liberation Organization chairman now devotes his time to preserving his uncle’s legacy at this museum.
A prominent politician frequently tipped as a potential successor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Qudwa encapsulates the fall from grace of Fatah’s old guard in the eyes of many young Palestinians.
Qudwa insists that the Yasser Arafat Museum – which officially opened in December 2016 – represents a victory over Israel by “enshrining” the Palestinian story and its people’s narrative. Indeed, he says “significant numbers” of Israeli Arabs are making the trip over the Green Line to visit the museum, often on Saturdays as part of a trip to Ramallah.
History is an essential frontline for the Palestinians, he believes. This is partly because denying the existence of a Palestinian people has long been a tactic of some Israelis in the war of narratives over the conflict, and partly because “spreading museum culture among Palestinians is critical to not having a new generation – split between the diaspora, Arab areas inside Israel, Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza – lose its identity,” he explains.
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Qudwa says that over 80,000 people have now visited the Arafat Museum, with 20 percent of them coming from Israel and a further 35 percent from overseas. Museum Director Mohammad Halayqa echoes those figures, saying they dwarf the numbers at the nearby Palestinian Museum in Bir Zeit, which was also inaugurated in 2016 at almost four times the cost, according to the New York Times.
Halayqa says the Arafat Museum is the Palestinians’ main museum because of its political nature. But to its critics, turning the new wing of the Muqata into a museum is darkly symbolic of what the PA has become. As one group of young Palestinians at a café in downtown Ramallah put it, “The Palestinian Authority pretends there are still prospects for a peace process to prop up their legitimacy, while they keep feeding off the status quo – and the museum serves the same purpose.” Qudwa they describe as "one of the cleanest people in the PA," adding this could be "a liability more than an asset" when the power struggle to succeed Abu Mazen takes place.
Arafat’s mausoleum is right next to the museum entrance and stands as a testament to Palestinian devotion to the national leader. Born in Cairo to Palestinian parents in 1929, he joined the PLO in 1967, becoming head of the Palestinian National Council two years later. After leading the Palestinians for over three decades, he died in a French hospital in November 2004 at age 75; many Palestinians, including Qudwa, believe he was assassinated by Israeli agents – a conspiratorial claim repeated in the museum’s exhibition.
Qudwa sees the museum as an attempt to safeguard the Palestinian narrative at a time when little progress is being made in the diplomatic arena. “The museum is not about Yasser Arafat the person, but Yasser Arafat as the symbol of the Palestinian national movement,” he explains. “It’s about the Palestinian journey over the last 100 years, in which Arafat features prominently since he was the leader of the people, the leader of the movement.”
On the winter’s day when Haaretz visited recently, the museum was neither particularly busy nor empty – a common occurrence, by all accounts. Before entering its main exhibition space, visitors are shown an interactive map highlighting the villages of Ottoman Palestine, which guides use to explain the Nakba (“the catastrophe,” the Palestinian term for the creation of the State of Israel).
A large canvas in the room presents a collage of prominent Palestinians, including Hamas co-founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini. The rest of the museum offers images and explanations that chronologically recount the Palestinian narrative, from the start of the 20th century and the British Mandate era (1920-1948) until the Israeli siege of the Muqata during the second intifada in the early 2000s and Arafat’s death in 2004.
Visitors are then taken through the cramped underground rooms where Arafat spent his final years living under siege, before ending at the temporary exhibition space. This is currently dedicated to a show about Palestinian refugees.
Stones become diamonds
Standing in front of large canvases that show Palestinians rioting against the Israeli army, a man is diligently answering his young son’s questions: “This is the army,” he says, pointing to the Israeli soldiers. A panel next to the images quotes a poem dedicated to the “pupils of Gaza,” which reads: “O, pupils of Gaza … teach us how stones in the hands of children become precious diamonds.”
Next to them, a group of Italian diplomats who have come to Ramallah from Tel Aviv look engrossed as they scan the images’ accompanying texts from top to bottom. Elham Abu Hmeideh, 47, from Jaffa, is even more captivated. “I nearly cried upon visiting the museum the first time,” she says. “For the first time, I understood the machinations and plans to expel Palestinians that led up to the Nakba. And I was reminded of a time when, with Arafat, there used to be hope. We used to have a leader who was the symbol of our cause – despite the challenges he faced and the compromises he had to make. They were better days,” she sighs.
Qudwa says a key component of the Arafat Museum is about cultivating a new generation of Palestinians, wherever they may be. Encouraging engagement from them is key, he says, noting that around 25 to 30 percent of the museum’s visitors are Palestinian students from the West Bank.
But Qudwa does not hide the fact that he prefers foreign visitors. “The museum is helping Palestinians develop a better knowledge of their own history, as well as boosting a museum culture in Palestine – which is still very weak,” he says. “But you can still see that the quality of the visit by foreigners is much better; they focus more on the details when they walk through the museum,” he notes.
Lack of access to the West Bank from Gaza remains a sore point for the museum head – both because of the vast pool of potential visitors, and the amount of “memorabilia” that remains stranded in the Strip. For example, a semi-destroyed gun belonging to Arafat’s late deputy, Abu Jihad (whose real name was Khalil al-Wazir and who was assassinated in Tunis by Israeli commandos in 1988), is at the top of his list. The museum is also working to retrieve Arafat’s belongings from his old Gaza headquarters, Al-Muntada, after Hamas took over the Strip in 2007.
But Qudwa says the main obstacle to moving these items to Ramallah is posed by Israel. “There are many things we’d like to have in Gaza, but at least after many years Hamas gave us back control of Arafat’s house there,” he says.
Likewise, efforts are ongoing in retrieving some of Arafat’s personal diaries. The PLO leader first discussed them in 1989, telling Vanity Fair: “I fill up a number of them ever year. … Everything is recorded, so future generations will understand exactly what happened. It is my duty to do this, since I am a cadre of history.” Qudwa refuses to discuss the volumes further, simply noting: “For the time being, visitors can enjoy the one notebook on display.”
Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, a prominent Palestinian intellectual and wholehearted advocate of Qudwa as the next Palestinian leader, says the unpopularity of the current leader, Abbas, is boosting Arafat’s standing in the Palestinian collective memory.
“People are not under the illusion that he was perfect or a saint. But he brought the Palestinian people together under a flag, he crossed the river to Palestine, claimed national rights and took the first steps toward the establishment of a state,” Nusseibeh says.
He admits, though, to being unsure how the younger generations regard the former PLO chief. “To some, Arafat is probably just a name – which is why the museum is important,” Nusseibeh says. “People like me who knew him well don’t need it. People from the older generations, particularly if close to the Fatah circles, definitely see him as the father of the nation, even if he made mistakes.”
Fierce critic of Abbas
At present, Qudwa sees fostering the Palestinian national consciousness through the museum as the best way to invest his time. But he is far more than just a museum curator. He is also one of the PA’s most experienced diplomats, having worked as Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations for over a decade from 1991 to 2004. And since rumors about Abbas’ deteriorating health spread last year, Qudwa’s name has often come up as a possible replacement. “I can say I’m definitely a maybe, but there are other maybes,” is all he will say, adding that there is currently “no vacancy.”
He admits his uncle made mistakes, specifically the Oslo Accords’ implementation of Areas A, B and C in the West Bank, which Qudwa says “put us in open prisons.” But he is more damning when it comes to Abbas’ failures, placing the PA’s lack of a diplomatic strategy at the top of a long list.
“There isn’t enough clarity in terms of our goals, our tactics. The [Palestinian] Central Council speaks about things we don’t really intend – such as the cessation of security cooperation [with Israel], reunification of Palestinian factions,” he says, adding, “If you misrepresent the situation, you lose credibility in the eyes of the world.”
Qudwa admits that Israel’s recent diplomatic successes, from Oman to Chad, worry him greatly, but believes that effective diplomatic work can reverse that trend. “I don’t think there can be broad normalization without the Palestinians – Arabs cannot live with the issue of Jerusalem,” he says.
And although he says Israel is exaggerating the progress it is making in regard to its relations with some Arab states, Qudwa sees the Middle East as a vital arena for future Palestinian diplomatic work. “We need to have a serious debate with the Arab world. America succeeded in persuading Saudi Arabia that Israel and the United States can protect them from Iran, and the Gulf states that the biggest threat is Iran, not Israel. But the assumption is wrong: Americans and Israelis won’t fight a war on their behalf,” he says.
Qudwa does conclude on a more positive note, though, saying his museum, “which reinforces ties between Palestinians from the West Bank and from Gaza, from the Arab world and the wider diaspora, is the best way to show the world that there is indeed such a thing as the Palestinians.”