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Foundation laid for museum of Palestinian history and culture in Bethlehem

June 15, 2008 7:42 P.M. (Updated: June 15, 2008 7:42 P.M.)
Bethlehem - Ma'an - Funds donated by Norway and the United Nations will transform the musty basement of a cultural center in the West Bank city of Bethlehem into a museum of Palestinian cultural heritage, Palestinian and international officials pledged on Sunday.

UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura, who ended a two-day visit to Palestine on Sunday, joined Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh and Governor Salah Ta'mari in the basement of Bethlehem's Peace Center, which neighbors the Nativity Church for a stone-laying ceremony for the planned museum. The Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khoulod Daibes was sent to represent Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who was busy meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Norway donated 700,000 US dollars for the project. Mayor Batarseh, noting that an additional half million more are needed, appealed to Norway for the rest of the money. Matsuura said he hoped the museum would open in September 2009.

The museum will be called the Bethlehem Riwaya (Narrative) Museum, and will feature exhibits about Palestinian culture and living history. UNESCO officials said that by adding a cultural attraction, tourists may be compelled to spend more time in the city. The majority of tourists in Bethlehem are bussed in from Jerusalem, visit the nativity church, and then return to Jerusalem, often spending their tourist dollars in Israel.

The Riwaya museum will also have an archaeological component. A crypt was discovered during the construction of the Peace Center in 1999. Virtually nothing is known about the crypt, but UNESCO officials said part of the construction of the museum would involve studying the site and investigating its origin.

Daibes, the Palestinian tourism minister, said that the planned museum is part of a broader effort of "sustaining [Palestinian] cultural and national identity" in the face of foreign occupation.

"Despite all these efforts," Daibes said, "Israel continues its breaches of international law, especially in Jerusalem." She pointed to Israel's controversial construction and excavation projects near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, which she said "amount to grave violations of international law."

Speaking to Ma'an after the ceremony, Matsuura said the museum "is designed to register the history of the people of Palestine, and establish Palestinian identity" publicly.

"Being at the crossroads of a number of civilizations," Matsuura said, "you can't just single out one aspect of Palestinian culture. . this is something that cannot be proposed from outside. This is something the Palestinian people must discuss and must settle [for themselves] . In the meantime, UNESCO is ready to help them deepen their understanding of their history and also preserve what remains as cultural heritage."

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