The museum is located in the occupied West Bank. 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, its central task is to examine the meaning of nationhoodby Daniella Peled / October 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
Listen: Peled chats to Prospect Editor Tom Clark in our monthly podcast, Headspace
When the Palestinian Museum opened its doors in Birzeit in May 2016, it was entirely empty. The £17m building, its angular limestone-clad shape alluding to the terraced landscape of its West Bank surroundings, had exhibition and education spaces, cafés and an open-air amphitheatre. What it didn’t have, due to a last-minute disagreement between the board and its former director Jack Persekian, was a collection to exhibit.
American and Israeli detractors gleefully claimed this as symbolic of the emptiness of the entire Palestinian claim to land, culture and nationhood. The lack of an inaugural show, they declared, was emblematic of the historic, self-defeating squabbling of Palestinian nationalism. “The fate of the exhibition may say as much about the realities of Palestinian society as any art collection could,” wrote the New York Times.
The mockery deployed a weapon regularly levelled against Palestinians—the outright denial of the existence of any real Palestinian nation. It’s an argument with longevity. A popular saying in the early days of Zionism was that it would provide “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Earlier this year, a book called A History of the Palestinian People: From Ancient Times to the Modern Era became a brief online bestseller. It was made up of 132 blank pages.
The museum is in part an answer to such “vicious, snotty, neo-imperialist” denial, as its ambassador-at-large and former chairman Omar al-Qattan describes it. He notes that delayed openings, curatorial squabbles and budget over-runs are all commonplace in the arts world. But then perhaps it was inevitable that Palestinians were going to be subject to an extra burden of symbolism. “Ours was a unique experience,” he continued. “I don’t know many museums created under a military occupation.”
There is something in the charge that Palestinian nationhood is an invention, to the extent that all nations have to be invented at some point. At the dawn of the 20th century, nobody was talking about a discrete Arab nation state in this corner of the Ottoman Empire. The term “Palestinian” covered all residents, including the small but growing local Jewish population, as it continued to do into the days of the British mandate. The future Israeli identity was similarly ill-formed. As late as November 1947, when the United Nations voted in favour of partition, a significant part of the Zionist movement was still committed to the idea of a binational state for both Jews and Arabs. The construction of Palestinian and Israeli identities, in all their diversity, were destined to develop in parallel and often in opposition to each other.
It was 100 years ago that the Zionist dreams of Jewish sovereignty were given a serious boost in the form of the Balfour declaration. Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, promised support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Balfour represented a major step along the path to a Jewish state, as much as in the evolution of a distinct Palestinian identity.
Balfour did find room, in his statement of a mere 67 words, to give reassurance to the Arabs of Palestine, affirming that it should be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” But that reassurance eventually proved worthless. For Palestinians, the birth of Israel in 1948 was the Nakba (or catastrophe) that would underpin their shared identity. Then, in 1967, came another definitive moment in the form of the Naksa (or setback) when Israel occupied of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, controlled by Jordan and Egypt respectively, following the Six Day War. Palestinian identity inevitably involves a dialogue based on this past 100 years of history. It has shaped the nation-in-waiting—“it’s part of our DNA,” as Zina Jaradneh, the museum’s current chair, puts it.
It’s hard for art and culture to be forward-looking with this burden of history, or to flourish when defined by pain or loss. The central task for the Palestinian museum is to give concrete expression to a more positive conception of identity, one that can examine all aspects of Palestinian life and tell fresh stories about nationhood.
But however lofty the ambitions, the immediate backdrop to the museum’s creation is the opposite of propitious. When the project was first conceived during the era of the 1990s Oslo peace process, the two-state solution—and the dream, therefore, of a Palestinian state—seemed a real possibility. Any such hope is looking forlorn today. For all President Donald Trump’s boasting of how he intends to seal “the ultimate deal” of peace, a Palestinian state has never seemed more unlikely. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presides over a country that has drifted towards the nationalist right, and for more than a decade what Oslo defined as the two halves of sovereign Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, have existed as separate political entities, ideologically divided between secular Fatah and Islamist Hamas, as they have long been geographically divided on the map. Hamas has promised to dissolve its government to facilitate elections spanning both the West Bank and Gaza, but this is likely to go the same way as many other previous attempts at reconciliation. The museum’s mission to explore and celebrate the identity and culture of a disparate, dispersed society was never going to be easy; but now it is also saddled with doing this for a people divided, for whom autonomy seems further away than ever.
The original plan had been to set the museum in Jerusalem, the city Palestinians view as their capital. Political realities mean it has ended up 30km away in Birzeit, a university town northwest of Ramallah. But the museum’s inaugural exhibition, which finally opened in August 2017, is all about the disputed capital. Its curator Reem Fadda explained that “Jerusalem Lives” is a new take on an old Palestinian political catchphrase.
“It’s an attempt to bring real meaning to this slogan,” she said, contending that Israel’s claim on Jerusalem as the eternal and undivided capital of the Jewish people has excluded vast swathes of people from what should be an international city. “Jerusalem was one of the starting points for globalisation…where a lot of universalist ideas and aspirations began,” she said. “So how does its failure in Jerusalem—and it’s failed miserably, on every front—expose the dynamics of the military occupation of Israel, not just affecting Palestinians but the humanity of the city in general?”
The galleries are filled with a mixture of Palestinian and international artworks alongside infographics on freedom of movement, building restrictions and ID controls for Palestinians within Jerusalem. One wall is filled with images from an archive of political posters, and there are cartoons referencing Jerusalem by iconic Palestinian caricaturist Naji al-Ali, assassinated in London 20 years ago. Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s Present Tense, first shown in Jerusalem 20 years ago, has been recreated out of 2,400 blocks of the famous Nablus olive oil soap, a scattering of red beads embedded (“like a cancer,” as Fadda puts it) to show the territories that were supposed to be handed over to Palestinian control under the Oslo agreement, yet are still held by Israel.
The tour continues outside in the cascade of stone-walled gardens designed by Jordanian landscape artist Lara Zureikat. These also provide commentary on the Palestinian experience, meticulously planted with nearly 70 varieties of indigenous and non-native, wild and domesticated species. One site-specific sculpture made from local marble invites viewers to touch, graffiti or even crouch inside the carved pillar. In the car park, a sound work by Bethlehem-born artist Emily Jacir broadcasts calls from the drivers of Palestinian taxis offering trips to locations including Ramallah, Gaza, Damascus—a mix of the mundane and fantastically inaccessible. Another slanted slab of concrete, a cast of excavated space, in the museum’s “Garden of Resistance” references the “facts on the ground” of foreign materials introduced to the natural environment.
“Facts on the ground” have always been fundamental to Israel’s state-building project; the museum seeks to build facts for Palestine in an abstract space. Jaradneh has already received several requests to take “Jerusalem Lives” to other venues in Europe, the US and the Gulf. Current donor negotiations focus on an ambitious digital archive project; educational programmes include partnerships with think tanks and academic journals.
In the absence of diplomatic progress, Palestine has also been trying to construct its own economic and cultural reality. Salam Fayed, the former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority created in the wake of the Oslo Accords led a decade-long “state-building” project, and Palestine infrastructure includes a functioning banking sector, a rapidly expanding telecommunications industry, not to mention a $600m stone and marble industry. As part of that trend, the museum is busy filling the traditional roles of a flagship cultural institution.
Significantly, although Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was there for a ribbon-cutting photo opportunity at the 2016 opening, it eschews direct political connections. Instead, it is rather a project of the Welfare Association (Taawon), a Palestinian development and humanitarian assistance charity. The politicians have let Palestinians down, so civil society has created its own symbols of, hopefully, shared national pride. That’s not easy when there are some 12m people to represent and engage—some stateless, many who have never visited any part of the territory of historic Palestine and who are unlikely to make it to Birzeit either. There are over 2.5m in the West Bank and 1.5m in Gaza. Then there are Palestinians within Israel, theoretically with full citizenship rights but subject to institutionalised discrimination. And then there are the refugees, descendants of those who left or were forced out in 1948, who now number some seven million.
A history of displacement, poverty and violence, and indeed of the sometimes viciously competing forces of secular nationalism and Islamism, is very far away from the cool, calm interiors of the Birzeit complex. As much as culture responds to context, the project strives to navigate away from a narrative of victimhood, defining identity by absence and negative space. The challenge is also to move the discussion on from the straightforward chronicle of struggle that was proposed when discussions first began in 1997.
“It was then coming up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Nakba and my father’s generation were interested in creating a memorial museum,” al-Qattan said. “The younger people wanted a forward-looking project about living Palestinian culture rather than a mausoleum of the past.”
There’s a striking divide between the old guard, as characterised by the 82-year-old Fatah veteran Abbas, and the Palestinian movement’s younger, more dynamic cohorts. Abbas was overwhelmingly elected to a four-year term in 2005; but 12 years on, in poor health and with no obvious or inspiring heir, most people want him to resign. His most popular potential successor, Marwan Barghouti, has been in an Israeli prison since 2002, serving five life sentences for terrorism-related murders.
The long-running rift between Fatah and Hamas, the Islamist movement that emerged in the 1980s, came to a head 10 years ago in Gaza when Hamas seized power there. Israel has placed the Strip under an effective siege ever since. Numerous rounds of war have created catastrophic damage; Gaza’s 1.5m residents are largely shut off from the world by an ongoing closure. Period attempts at political unity between Hamas and Fatah have been short-lived.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Abbas’s rule has seen increasing attacks on freedom of expression and a tightening control of the media. The Palestinian Authority (PA), which he heads, co-operates closely with the Israelis on security, so many Palestinians view it as little more than the occupier’s police force.
“I am positive if the PA had any intervention [the museum] wouldn’t be successful,” said Alaa Tartir, programme director of Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. “The idea of such a museum goes beyond factionalism, it’s about echoing Palestinian voices and aspirations. There is a clear authoritarian tendency in the PA, which is an anti-democratic machine rather than a mechanism owned by the Palestinian people.”
“Questions as to whether the museum could collaborate with Israeli artists were met with silence, giggles or outrage”
It’s unsurprising, then, that Palestinians have retreated from political engagement; May’s municipal elections in the West Bank saw a miserably low turn-out. Amid such apathy and disillusionment, Palestinian entrepreneur and consultant Sam Bahour says that the articulation of the struggle has changed. Other organisations are filling the gap left by defunct Oslo-era institutions, sometimes in a virtual space; his own think tank, the Palestine Strategy Group, by design exists only online with a mandate to bring together Palestinians from across the world.
“It’s no coincidence that we see this upgrade by organisations in the periphery and not the PLO, which itself has not been rejuvenated by younger generation,” Bahour argued. “Civil society organisations are making much more progress.”
The Palestinian national movement from its inception has involved a degree of political violence. Israelis and many others would define it as cold-blooded terrorism; those involved in the struggle see it as the legitimate right of an occupied people to resist. From the cross-border fedayeen raids of the 1950s and 1960s, to the Munich Olympics massacre and plane hijackings in the 1970s through to the suicide bombings of the 2000s, violence has always been a strategic tool.
In recent decades, this has appeared to produce some political capital. The first intifada led to Oslo, the far bloodier second intifada—it could be argued—led to Israel’s 2005 exit from Gaza. But even violent resistance has become unmoored from the political process. What some called the third intifada, the disorganised wave of stabbings and vehicle attacks by mostly young Palestinians that began in 2015, showed no sign of either ideological coherence or any chance of winning any political achievement.
“There’s been a conscious, intentional move away from [violent struggle] in the last 15 years and the use of tools of non-violent resistance to mobilise people,” Bahour said. “There’s an awareness that we will not be able to win militarily.” This gives new salience to the diplomatic and particularly the cultural front of the conflict, in which the museum is inevitably involved.
Increasingly, Palestinians see more benefit in engaging with the wider global community rather than the occupying power. There’s been the so-called internationalising of the conflict, not least the push for symbolic recognition of sovereignty. At the UN in 2012, 138 countries voted to recognise the Palestinian state. Palestine has joined numerous international bodies, including Unesco, and in 2015, it formally joined the International Criminal Court. Israel sees this “lawfare” as no less threatening than terrorism, particularly because there is no plausible military response. When, in September 2017, Palestine joined Interpol, one Israeli minister described this as waging “diplomatic war” on Israel.
Despite all their military and economic power, Israelis still feel an immense sense of vulnerability. The burgeoning Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement—an international effort to put pressure on Israel through academic, business and cultural boycotts—is a perfect illustration. Many Jews see the economical and cultural exclusion of Israel and Israelis as anti-Semitic, but Tartir positions it as “the ultimate example of non-violent resistance.”
The fact that BDS, which can’t and won’t have much impact on Israel’s extraordinarily buoyant economy, is seen as such an existential threat speaks volumes about the Israeli mindset. With all the inequalities and injustices of the occupation, it’s a bit much to expect any Palestinian sympathy for their plight.
Israelis, beyond their role as agents of oppression, simply don’t seem very relevant to Palestinian nationalists anymore. The two sides are blind to each other, and becoming ever more so. “Partners for peace” has entered the same etymological oblivion as tired old phrases referencing a viable two-state solution.
In this museum, Jewish Israelis, even in a cultural context, only appear as colonisers and aggressors. But balance, as al-Qattan puts it, is for the BBC, not for the arts. “I’m more interested in cultural contradiction and paradox rather than taming things into intellectual oblivion,” he said. Questions as to whether the museum could contemplate any kind of collaboration with Israeli artists were met with baffled silence, nervous giggles or plain outrage. One interviewee asked for assurances that I would not be publishing any part of this article in the liberal and emphatically anti-occupation Israeli newspaper Haaretz, for which I also write.
Could Israelis visit? Israelis are by law banned from entering “Area A” of the West Bank, where the PA has full civilian and security control. Red billboards in Hebrew, Arabic and English warn that entrance for Israeli citizens is “forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against the Israeli law.”
In reality, some citizens do cross and are rarely checked. But the assumption of most Israelis is that, legalities aside, they would be torn limb for limb if they tried. The lynching of two soldiers who strayed into Ramallah in 2000 and were beaten to death by an angry mob remains alive in many minds. A straw poll of the kind of secular, left-wing Tel Avivians that conceivably might visit the museum drew a blank.
It’s yet another sign of how far the Israeli-Palestinian context has moved from the preachy coexistence and dialogue groups of the 1990s. International donors still fall over themselves to fund joint projects, but it’s increasingly seen as a deceitful and solely cosmetic alternative to any real progress towards justice. Amid the apparent stasis that for now exists between Israel and the Palestinians, the museum feels like a moment of progress. But, as al-Qattan is keen to stress, “culture is not a replacement or surrogate for justice, whether a division of resources or equal rights.”
And while the Palestinian Museum focuses on crafting new symbols of national identity, Palestinians appear increasingly resigned to the fact that statehood may take a very different form from that which has been tantalisingly dangled for the last quarter century. According to an August survey by Palestine’s leading pollsters, 52 per cent of Palestinians believe that the two-state solution—never universally accepted, anyway—is no longer viable. If Palestinians give up on the idea of statehood and instead focus on achieving full civil rights, demographics mean that Israel would be a Jewish state no longer. Apart from a few settlers and political scientists tinkering with possibilities of federations or shared sovereignty, Jewish Israelis view this outcome with horror. “We Palestinians can live with a one state solution,” said Bahir. “My question to Israelis is, can they?”
Summud, or steadfastness, is often claimed as the definitive Palestinian national trait. They have the patience to wait while Israelis succumb to inertia and the illusory luxury of maintaining the status quo. Instead of merely addressing the issues raised in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Palestinian answer to Balfour may end up having to confront the legacy of 1948 and the creation of the Jewish state itself. Narrating a cultural response to that uncharted future may be the museum’s biggest challenge of all.