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Museum Explores Arafat’s Legacy but Leaves Unanswered Questions

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Much about Yasir Arafat remains an enigma, in death as in life.

The man who came to embody the Palestinian national cause was variously born in Jerusalem, or Gaza, or Cairo. It was never entirely clear what led to his death in a French military hospital in November 2004.

The Yasir Arafat Museum will proffer answers to these questions when it opens to the public here on Thursday, the eve of the 12th anniversary of his death at 75.

But like most things relating to Mr. Arafat and his ambiguous legacy, the museum’s contents are unlikely to put to rest the enduring arguments about his quest for Palestinian liberation, which combined peacemaking with armed struggle. A revolutionary hero to admirers, he was viewed by his many detractors as an archterrorist until the end.

The museum’s narrative begins at the dawn of the 20th century and traces the rise of Palestinian nationalism, its struggles with Zionism and Israel, and Mr. Arafat’s role at critical points. The story ends abruptly with his demise, without any conclusion, reflecting his ultimate failure in achieving his goal of Palestinian independence, whether through diplomacy or the gun.

The detailed exhibit, made up of archival photos, video playing in a loop on screens, explanatory texts, documents and some of Mr. Arafat’s personal effects, is displayed along the walls of four ascending ramps in a sleek new building in the Muqata compound, which served as Mr. Arafat’s West Bank headquarters. This is where he spent his last 34 months under siege, surrounded by Israeli tanks and rubble. The museum brochure describes the location as “the grounds of his final battle.”

“The idea is to have a cultural, educational as well as commemorative institution,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, Mr. Arafat’s nephew and the chairman of the Yasir Arafat Foundation, which pioneered the $7 million museum project with funds allocated by successive Palestinian Authority governments. “We have tried to do it in as accurate a way as possible, without exaggeration or understatement.”

By the museum’s telling, Mr. Arafat was born in his grandfather’s house in the Old City of Jerusalem on Aug. 4, 1929. He was soon taken to Cairo, where his father worked, then returned to the Old City home after his mother died when he was 4. A replica of the home’s salon has windows looking out onto the Aqsa Mosque. (Pointing to a photograph of a bulldozer at work further along in the exhibit, a museum guide said Mr. Arafat’s childhood home was demolished after Israel conquered the area in the 1967 war and cleared it to create the plaza by the Western Wall, known to Muslims as Al-Buraq.)

He died, according to the exhibit, after Israel apparently managed to poison him — this “based on evidence from laboratories and other medical reports as well as official statements by Israeli officials,” the text reads, though Israel denied involvement.

Personal items include the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma Mr. Arafat received in 1994, an honor he shared with his Israeli partners, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, for the Oslo peace accords, and the pistol Mr. Arafat kept in a worn, brown leather holster. Also on hand is one of the scores of notebooks in which he recorded his daily dealings in tiny handwriting.

The Palestinian contemporary history of dispersal made it difficult to gather the material. While the museum attempts to present an image of Palestinian unity in diversity, the Palestinian homeland is now internally fractured. Hamas, the Islamic movement that rivals Mr. Arafat’s Fatah group, recently handed over the Nobel Prize paraphernalia, which was looted after Hama seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Other items remain there. Mohammad Halayka, the director of the museum, said a box of photographic slides that belonged to Mr. Arafat turned up in a Gaza market.

The iconic image of Mr. Arafat in his khaki uniform, checkered kaffiyeh and shades had emerged by 1968, when he was featured on the cover of Time magazine. By 1974 he was addressing the United Nations, famously declaring that he had come “bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun.”

The museum treads a fine line, honoring the Palestinian narrative while dealing dispassionately with some of the more awkward periods in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chronology.

“Of course the P.L.O. went through different iterations of what kind of movement it was,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the U.S./Middle East Project, a policy institute, who visited the museum before it officially opened. “They made an effort not to be gratuitous and get people’s backs up unnecessarily while being true to Palestinian revolutionarist history that included armed struggle.”

One display acknowledges the “oppression of Jews in Europe” during World War II, saying the rise of Nazism culminating in the Holocaust led to an increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine, then under the British mandate. Other displays detail massacres carried out by Zionist and Israeli forces, like at Deir Yassin and Kafr Qassem.

Notorious acts of terrorism carried out by Palestinian factions, like the airplane hijackings and the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as well as the suicide bombings that Fatah militants joined in with in the early 2000s, are neither glorified nor condemned. The extent of Mr. Arafat’s involvement in them is left unexplained.

The Oslo process is given prominence, even though most Palestinians and Israelis consider it an abysmal failure. Although Mr. Peres, who died in September at 93, was remembered as a champion of peace, his eulogizers generally avoided mentioning Oslo by name.

Almost absent from the main exhibit is any mention of Suha Arafat, Mr. Arafat’s widow, who was 34 years his junior and whose relations with other Palestinian officials turned ugly. There are several pictures of Mr. Arafat with their young daughter, Zahwa.

Mr. Arafat’s not-so-popular successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, who spoke at the opening ceremony on Wednesday, seems to be featured only when unavoidable, like in a picture of the signing of the 1993 Oslo agreement on the White House lawn.

“When he was there, he was there,” said Mr. Kidwa, whose own name has been floated as a potential leader or figurehead.

A highlight of the museum tour is the bridge linking it to the old part of the Muqata, where Mr. Arafat lived out his final years in cramped, spartan quarters. His bedroom has been kept as it was: a single bed, a prayer rug folded on a chair, a closet with four khaki jackets on hangers, a pile of folded kaffiyehs and a jumble of woolen hats.

The point is to burnish his image as the revolutionary living almost ascetically, sharing his food with his comrades, despite the whiff of autocracy, rampant corruption and patronage that soon enveloped his Palestinian Authority.

The simple bedroom is reminiscent of the one preserved in the desert retirement home of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister. But unlike Mr. Ben-Gurion, Mr. Arafat did not achieve statehood for his people.

Instead, the Palestinian story, or Mr. Arafat’s story, seems to go downhill after the assassination of Mr. Rabin by a Jewish extremist in November 1994. The museum documents the descent into the chaos and violence of the second Palestinian intifada and Israel’s response. It ends with images of the wall Israel built to keep out suicide bombers and the Muqata in ruins.

While the funerals for Mr. Rabin and Mr. Peres were ceremonious events attended by world leaders, Mr. Arafat’s was a tumultuous affair. His coffin was flown back to the Muqata by helicopter, where it was greeted passionately by heaving crowds. The air grew thick as militiamen fired their weapons for hours.

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(via NY Times)