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A new museum devoted to Yasser Arafat reflects Palestinian nostalgia — and discontent

A new museum devoted to Yasser Arafat reflects Palestinian nostalgia — and discontent
In 1994, Yasser Arafat, left, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pose with their medals after receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. (Associated Press)

A dozen years after the death of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority is opening a museum honoring the founder of the Palestinian movement for political sovereignty.

The $7-million Yasser Arafat Museum sits next to the personal quarters where Arafat spent his final years and the mausoleum that houses his tomb.

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Arafat “represents the biggest chapter in our political life,” museum director Mohammed Halayka told reporters invited to tour the building before a ceremonial opening with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and foreign dignitaries. “People miss Arafat.”

Hailed as a hero among his people for bringing their struggle to the world stage, Arafat was a complicated and controversial figure. He founded the  Palestine Liberation Organization, which for decades carried out a campaign of violence against Israel, often targeting civilians. Later, he negotiated a peace accord and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize. Many Israelis still revile Arafat as a terrorist.

The museum, which opens Thursday, glorifies Arafat's early years as a guerrilla fighter but shies away from the role that his political movement had in violence against civilians in later years. It avoids accusations that he squandered billions of dollars in aid money and governed autocratically.

"We thought there is a need for a museum to tell the Palestinian story to a new generation," Halayka said. "It's not an attempt to imitate any museum in the world. It's our museum. It's our experience and it's our story. We are telling it our way."

The museum presents familiar images of the Palestinian narrative: tent camps of refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the concrete separation barrier that Israel built a decade ago,  the red roofed Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

In a yellowed Palestinian magazine on display from the 1960s, a fist holds up a rifle dripping with blood, alongside the caption: "The weapon is the way of return."

Less proud moments get a hedged description. A display on the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, one of the most infamous acts of Palestinian terrorism against Israelis, explains the killings as a response to a raid by "German and Israeli security forces."

Arafat, who died Nov. 11, 2004, in a Paris hospital after a brain hemorrhage, left a void in Palestinian politics that has only grown.

His successor, 81-year-old Abbas, faces declining popularity, stalled peace talks with Israel and growing speculation that the battle over who will lead next could destabilize the government.

For the last nine years, Palestinian territory has been under divided rule. The Palestinian Authority, headed by Abbas, has controlled the West Bank, while the Islamic militant group Hamas rules the Gaza Strip.

"The vacuum is something to be expected, when it comes to the loss of historic leaders," said Nasser Kidwa, a former Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations and the chairman of the foundation that oversees the museum. "The Palestinian situation is complicated internally as well as externally."

Kidwa, who is Arafat's nephew and seen as a potential successor to Abbas, said the museum aspires to chronicle "100 years of conflict and dispossession" and to highlight the role of Arafat as "the main figure" in the Palestinian quest for statehood.

Officials said they had difficulty collecting Arafat's personal effects and papers from his previous headquarters in Beirut, Tunis and the Gaza Strip.

His Nobel medal, which was left in his office in Gaza City after his death, arrived only in recent months after mediation with Hamas, museum officials said.

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Relying largely on photographs, the museum traces Arafat's life from his days as a Palestinian student leader in Egypt and a guerrilla leader in the fledgling Palestine Liberation Organization to his role as peace negotiator.

Some might take issue with the museum's account. It holds that Arafat's hometown is a Palestinian village near the Old City of Jerusalem even though biographers and historians have concluded that he was born in Egypt. Other chapters of his life, including his youth and his relationship with his wife, Suha Arafat, get spotty treatment.

"It's not Arafat's history,'' explained museum director Halayka.  "It's the Palestinian contemporary story."

A bridge from the main building leads to the office, guard barracks and tiny bedroom where Arafat faced a ring of Israeli tanks in 2002 at the height of the second Palestinian uprising. Sandbags block the windows and AK-47s lean against bunk beds in an effort to evoke the siege.

Known by Palestinians as the Muqata,  which means "headquarters," the building was heavily damaged in the fighting.

Hassan Shaywi, a 39-year-old museum security guard who was once a member of Arafat's personal detail, recalled that time. At one point, a rumor took root that Israel planned to destroy the headquarters. Arafat seemed immune from the sense of panic that spread through the barracks.

"Everyone was depressed, but he came out joking and laughing," Shaywi said.

Outside the museum Tuesday, a group of school-uniformed children posed for pictures waving Palestinian flags. Just a block away, however, malaise over stalled Palestinian political aspirations overshadowed enthusiasm about the museum.

"I don't know much about Arafat," said Yasser Hasib, a 51-year-old doorman. "I don't think there's anything new. The people no longer know who is a symbol and who isn't."

Shaima Arda, a 24-year-old municipal administrator, said she didn't plan to visit the museum. "Palestinian history has nothing to do with a museum. You can see more by living here, than by going to a museum."

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