In the shadow of the Israeli separation wall, and on the bucolic campus of al-Quds University in Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, sits a museum dedicated to Palestinian prisoners of Israel. The Abu Jihad Museum for the Prisoners’ Movement is named after the Palestinian political prisoner and martyr, Khalil al-Wazir or Abu Jihad, who gained notoriety as a leader of the first intifada and an advocate for prisoners’ rights. Al-Wazir was assassinated by Israel in Tunisia in 1988.
It is estimated that there are currently 5,300 Palestinians in Israeli jails. Hundreds of them are children who, under Israeli military law, can be tried as adults at age 10. Since 1967, there have been approximately 750,000 Palestinian prisoners, and about 25 percent of the Palestinian population has been incarcerated at some point in life. The museum’s director, Fahd Abu al-Hajj, was himself a political prisoner, having spent ten years in an Israeli jail.
National museums are frequently places where states relate their foundational narratives that locate the state in a past and project the state into the future. Similarly, museums are places where states display art and material culture of other places and cultures in order to position themselves as modern or cultured. The Palestinian prisoners’ museum works in a different curatorial register because it represents a people who are stateless, while collecting material culture about the ongoing struggle for national liberation. In this way, the Abu Jihad Museum operates self-consciously as resistance, while also curating the Israeli occupation in subversive ways. The space might be compared to the Hizballah-run landmark in Mleeta, south Lebanon, which also engages in the genre of “resistance museums.”
The design of the building reproduces the experience of being taken to jail. Cement pillars shield the entrance, evoking the separation wall that stands in stark relief behind the museum. The visitor then walks across a paved bridge over a stand of cacti, the historical marker of Palestinian villages. Once over the bridge, the visitor must pass through a turnstile crowned with barbed wire in order to enter the museum. It is akin to both incarceration and movement through a checkpoint, thus providing commentary on the walls of the prison and that prison-like barrier just a few hundred yards away.
Once inside, the visitor encounters a history of Palestine’s prisons beginning with those built during the British Mandate. The displays tell the stories of political prisoners killed in Israeli jails since 1967 and focus on various forms of torture employed. Here the museum relies on abstract representations, for example artists’ depictions of sensory deprivation and stress positions, rather than the physical tools of the torturer’s trade. The interior design corresponds to the exhibits on the walls; bars and walls disrupt the movement of visitors through the hallways. There is a display of political posters of the prisoners’ movement (much of the poster collection has been published in book form).
Although the great majority of the Palestinian prisoners are men, the Abu Jihad Museum features information about women prisoners, too. The text accompanying photos of female prisoners indicates that children born to imprisoned women must be incarcerated with their mothers for two years, after which time the children must leave the prison, often entering homes without parents.
The second floor of the museum showcases prisoners’ artwork and letters. Like political prisoners in the US, many Palestinian prisoners learned to write while in prison and chose to document their internment. The museum also shares many of the tactics employed by prisoners to communicate with each other without the guards’ knowledge.
The prisoners’ writings make up the archival material housed in the library on the third floor. The archives house hundreds of thousands of testimonials, which are intended to assist in the work of historical preservation as well as legal advocacy in the present.
The Abu Jihad Museum for the prisoners’ movement suggests the political possibilities of a resistance museum. Its curatorial politics as well as its interior and exterior design mirror the passage from freedom to unfreedom. At the same time, the separation wall standing just outside of the museum suggests another kind of prison.