RAMALLAH, West Bank — It’s not often that one gets a glimpse inside the bedroom of one of the world’s most controversial leaders. And the creators of the Yasser Arafat Museum here hope it will change some perceptions of the late Palestinian leader.
Officially opening Thursday, 12 years after Arafat’s death in France, the museum details his metamorphosis from a hunted revolutionary and guerrilla leader to a diplomat and peacemaker. At the same time, it recounts the Palestinian people’s struggle against Israeli occupation.
Visitors will be able to see the original office, meeting room and even the 54-square-foot bedroom where Arafat spent the final three years of his life in a compound surrounded by the Israeli army.
“We have kept it exactly as it was,” Nasser al-Qidwa, Arafat’s nephew and president of the new Arafat Institute, told journalists recently during a preview tour of the new facility.
The importance to Palestinians of the museum, which has been more than six years in the making and cost around $7 million, is clear. The gleaming white building sits adjacent to the Palestinian president’s headquarters, known as the Muqataa. Its entrance takes visitors past Arafat’s tomb, a solemn Ramallah landmark where admirers come to pay respects to their legendary leader.
“The Yasser Arafat Museum displays the Palestinian experience,” said Mohammad Halayka, the museum’s director. “It is the only venue in Palestine that presents the Palestinian narrative of events from the last century.”
Inside, more than 120 displays detail in words and photos the lives and travails of Palestinian leaders and people. Rare footage of events such as what Palestinians call the “nakba,” or catastrophe — the 1948 war when Palestinian civilians were uprooted from their ancestral homes during Israel’s creation — plays on state-of-the-art television screens.
An enclosed footbridge brings visitors into the austere quarters where Arafat lived from 2001 to 2004. The tiny bedroom, with its meager furnishings, seems intended to negate Israeli reports that the Palestinian leader siphoned off millions of dollars in aid meant for his people.
In his former room, a single metal-framed bed sits neatly made in a corner. Nearby, a traditional Muslim prayer rug is draped over a simple wooden chair, and opposite is a closet displaying four stiff military uniforms and a pile of more than a dozen keffiyehs, the traditional Arab headdress that became the Palestinian leader’s trademark.
Also on display is an outdated television set — probably Arafat’s only link to the outside world — as well shoe-shining equipment and a collection of his woolen hats.
In his office, a pair of Arafat’s dark-rimmed eyeglasses sits on his desk. Trophies and gifts bestowed by international admirers decorate a bookshelf. On the wall is a photo of his daughter, Zahwa, and the portraits of two pro-Palestinian activists: American student Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by Israeli soldiers in Gaza, and Tom Hurndall, a British activist with the International Solidarity Movement, killed in 2004.
The museum’s message contrasts starkly with Israel’s version of Arafat’s life story as well as with the Palestinian narrative.
The controversy starts almost from the first display: a replica of a house overlooking the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City. A sign says it was the home of Arafat’s grandfather and the exact place where the Palestinian leader was born.
Yet Israelis, and most historians, say Arafat was born in Egypt, arriving in Jerusalem only after the death of his mother when he was 4 years old.
Another mystery is how Arafat died in November 2004 at age 75. Many Palestinians, including his wife Suha, believe he was poisoned by radioactive polonium-210. Although there has been no conclusive evidence, some Palestinians say he was assassinated by Israel, while others point to an internal Palestinian conspiracy.
“I am totally convinced his death was not a natural death, and most likely he was poisoned. Israel assassinated Yasser Arafat,” said Qidwa, his nephew.
Wherever he was born and whatever the cause of his death, Arafat came into the world in 1929, and his actions helped to shape and unify the Palestinian national identity. His involvement in the Palestinian cause began when he was a teenager, even before Israel’s creation in 1948.
But it was only after 1967, when Israel defeated the armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War, that Arafat became the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a powerful symbol of Palestinian resistance. For the next 20 years, Arafat and his followers launched countless attacks on Israel, cementing his reputation among Palestinians as a revolutionary leader and among Israelis as a murderous terrorist.
In the 1990s, Arafat changed his tactics and his politics when he began to engage in diplomacy with the Israelis, leading eventually to the now-failed Oslo Peace Accords. That new path earned him a share of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.
“There is not really enough space in any museum to adequately display Arafat’s legacy,” said director Halayka. “He brought unity, national pride, freedom and fight to the Palestinian people, and people really miss him.”
William Booth and Sufian Taha contributed to this report.