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Palestinian museum to open, without exhibition
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas (C) attends the inauguration of the Palestinian Museum dedicated to Palestinian art, culture and society in the West Bank town of Birzeit on May 18, 2016. After nearly 20 years and millions of dollars, Palestinian leaders cut the red ribbon to inaugurate a museum about their national heritage. Yet while the architecture is impeccable, the exhibition halls are empty.

by Shatha Yaish

BIRZEIT (AFP).- After nearly 20 years and millions of dollars, Palestinian leaders on Wednesday cut the red ribbon to inaugurate a museum about their national heritage. Yet while the architecture is impeccable, the exhibition halls are empty.

The leaders have trumpeted the opening of the museum in the occupied West Bank for months, hailing it as a home for a national memory which Palestinians often accuse Israel of trying to eradicate.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas took part in the inauguration of the impressive building covered in greenery on the hills of the Birzeit university town near Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Workers have been rushing to install electrics for the ceremony but no artists have been preparing an exhibition. 

"This is not an empty museum. It's a building of a museum. What we are inaugurating now is just a building," said Omar Qattan, director of the museum which employs 40 people.

The exhibitions would start in October, he said.

"We are celebrating the fact it is completed on time. We are celebrating the gardens."

"We wanted to stick to a date -- I think it is very important psychologically for us to be able to make promises that we keep. So we decided to open now rather than wait for the inaugural exhibition." 

Researchers had been searching for Palestinian family albums from around the world for months, but the exhibition isn't ready.

Differences of opinion
The idea for the museum dates back to 1997, four years after the Oslo peace accords established the Palestinian Authority and were in theory meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state.

Organisers said they aim to create a place of memory for Palestinians, who often accuse Israel of rewriting history to justify their policies -- including the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories.

The building cost about $28 million, financed 95 percent by Palestinians, Qattan said, stressing one of the materials were imported from Israel.

But in the past six months, the director and several museum officials have left, a source close to the project told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"There were differences of views," said the source, who said the museum's inauguration without an exhibition was a disappointment, as it will "not live up to its declared vision of telling the Palestinian people's story to the world."

Critics of the Palestinian Authority are likely to use it to again attack Abbas and others for lack of leadership.

Museum without movement
For a museum aiming to capture the Palestinian identity, part of the challenge, Qattan said, was ensuring Palestinians from different places would be able to access the site.

Palestinians from Gaza are largely prevented from leaving by an Israeli blockade, while those living in the West Bank need Israeli permission to visit Jerusalem.

The organisers initially dreamed of having the museum in east Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of any future state but which Israel occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

Qattan said Israel's policies meant such a plan had to be abandoned.

"It was clear it was going to be very difficult -- to open a museum called the Palestinian Museum is not really going to be allowed.

"We then thought, how do we overcome this problem? Even if we opened in Jerusalem, many people from Gaza or the West Bank can't go to Jerusalem."

"Wherever we build it in Palestine, there is always going to be an accessibility issue."

One answer was an online platform, he said, with as much material as possible going online.

A second was a satellite model -- with smaller projects in other places where there are large numbers of Palestinians, including Lebanon and Jordan.

The museum will next week open an exhibition in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, entitled "At the seams: A political history of Palestinian embroidery."

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

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