A symbol of and for Palestine

The new museum in the West Bank is symbolic of the people’s dispossession

The Palestinian Museum's progress reflects that of the people it represents. Dalia Hatuqa for The National
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Like Palestine itself, the Palestinian Museum in Birzeit was built without Israeli help, and indeed in the teeth of Israeli opposition and obstruction. Now finally complete, after years of delays caused by Israel exerting control over Palestinian lands, so that construction materials and skilled staff could not get to the museum, the building is open, a symbol of defiance and hope.

And yet the symbolism of the project is also particularly stark. In a country under occupation, the Palestinian Museum has taken years to complete but remains mostly empty. The idea of the museum, like the idea of Palestine, is complete but unpopulated – and it is unpopulated for the same reason. Just as Israel denies Palestinians their right of return, so the country denies them the ability to import their own artworks.

And the symbolism continues. Instead of being gathered together in one place, the artworks and artefacts – like the people – are scattered among 30 smaller museums across the West Bank and Gaza.

All in all, the museum plays an important role, even if it remains incomplete. The Palestinian story, the narrative of the people, their history, their dispossession and their exile is all too rarely considered. Indeed, Israel and its supporters have spent decades denying the truth of the Palestinian experience, even, in some cases, going so far as to make the racist suggestion that the Palestinians somehow don’t exist as a distinct nationality.

Against that background, the museum is vital, as a physical representation of the history of the people and their country, but also as a gathering space for a new generation to understand the art and culture of the past and the present. Perhaps the saddest part is that, because of the occupation, the 1.6 million Palestinians living in Gaza are denied the chance to visit the museum, while foreigners will be able to visit.

There is, naturally, a concern that Israel will seek to destroy the cultural landmark, physically erasing the structure. That, too, would of course be immensely and horrifically symbolic.