The Yasser Arafat Museum will open its doors on Thursday, 12 years after the Palestinian leader died under uncertain circumstances.
The museum, which cost more than $7 million and took eight years to construct, is located between Arafat’s tomb, which Palestinians, foreign dignitaries and tourists visit daily, and the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Many Palestinians hail Arafat as the father of Palestinian nationalism. The more than 100 exhibits, including digital installations, explore his life and the history of the Palestinian people. They include inscriptions and clips about the Balfour Declaration, the 1947 UN Partition plan, the Madrid Peace Conference, Arafat’s election to the PA presidency and many other historical events.
Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew of Arafat and a Fatah Central Committee member, said the museum purposefully did not choose to focus exclusively on Arafat’s life.
“We want to show the whole story of the Palestinian people, from the dawn of the 20th century until 2004,” he said outside the museum. “This story is of 100 years of conflict and dispossession, [but] also the role of Arafat, who is the main figure in this Palestinian journey.”
At the end of the four hallways of exhibits and across a medium-sized footbridge overlooking the entrance to the Mukata, the PA headquarters, comes the centerpiece of the museum, the wing where Arafat and his associates were besieged by the IDF for three years during the second intifada.
The wing includes Arafat’s office, where he recorded many interviews, held meetings and worked. It also contains Arafat’s sleeping quarters, a small, windowless bedroom with a simple twin bed and wooden closet.
The bedroom displays prayer mats, winter hats, worn blankets and pillows and a drawing of Arafat’s daughter, Zahwa.
Muhammed Halayka, director of the museum, said the bedroom reflected the humility of Arafat.
“The bedroom shows that Arafat was simple and humble; he didn’t assume a grand way of living, like other presidents,” he said. “He lived like any ordinary Palestinian.”
Hassan Shtaiwa, 39, who served as a personal security guard of Arafat during the Israeli siege, recalled that the Palestinian leader maintained his composure and even made jokes.
“He managed to stay happy and crack jokes when everyone else was depressed,” said Shtaiwa, who will soon take over security for the museum. “He was a big support for all of us.”
The museum’s opening comes as Fatah, Arafat’s party, suffers from divisions and internal fighting. It is expected to convene at the end of the month to elect a new leadership, but many analysts say Abbas intends to use the conference to consolidate his authority.
The museum also features a handful of Arafat’s most prized possessions, such as his handgun, keffiyeh (head scarf) and Nobel Peace Prize. In addition, it displays important original documents and speeches, such as the military announcement of Fatah’s first “operation” against Israel and the famous 1974 UN speech in which Arafat said he carried both an olive branch and a gun.
Museum director Halayka said many other important belongings and documents were still in Arafat’s Gaza office, which Hamas has closed to museum officials. Moreover, Kidwa said many other documents and belongings had been lost.
“The Arafat archive, which is probably the only coherent and comprehensive archive, was subject to several blows in Beirut and later in Gaza,” Kidwa said. “The same goes for his belongings.”
For example, the museum could not find Arafat’s original Nobel Peace Prize certificate and instead displays a copy that the Nobel committee reproduced.
Across the street from the museum, Ahmad Said, a 22-year-old Palestinian student residing in Jordan, said he believed the museum was very important.
“It is a reminder of the intifada and the struggle when we did not give up on our country,” he said.
Yasser Khasib, a 51-year-old doorman, said he had no reason to visit the museum.
“No one knows who’s a symbol and who isn’t anymore,” Khasib said. “There is no hope for the future. No one cares about it.”
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