The Muqata: Facade of a Palestinian State
By: Linda Tabar
Published Monday, December 26, 2011
Amid talks of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) so-called state-building continues unabated. Lacking real political power, the illusion of authority is created through the spatial organization of state structures, like the network of buildings known as the muqatas, serving as PA headquarters across the West Bank.
Ramallah - On October 18, thousands of Palestinians poured into the muqata in Ramallah, the PA’s presidential headquarters, to celebrate the release of nearly 500 Palestinian political prisoners as part of a historic deal struck between Hamas and Israel.
For a brief moment, presidential power and authority expressed by the muqata, as controlled space, were subverted. Ordinary individuals, and working and lower class families – many hailing from remote areas of the West Bank, where they are confined to isolated cantons by the Israeli apartheid regime – jubilantly converged on the muqata to greet the prisoners.
Many happily drank tea and juice sold by impoverished street vendors struggling to survive in Ramallah’s neoliberal economy that has become increasingly dominated by franchises, cafes, and branded consumer products.
For a fleeting moment, the space was reclaimed. Thousands participated in a moment of communal joy and witnessed emotional scenes as Palestinian prisoners, who sacrificed many years of their lives for the cause, were embraced by their loved ones.
Yet such moments of collective solidarity have become rare. The spatial transformation of the muqata in Ramallah, and the imposing new presidential palace built there, embody the way the PA has transformed the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle.
The term “muqata” does not merely refer to the main PA headquarters in Ramallah. It stands for all PA administrative centers dispersed throughout the West Bank. Most of the muqatas were built by the British colonial state and served as military installations, police stations, and prisons.
This infrastructure of colonial domination was taken over by the Israeli regime in 1967, which in turn used them for similar purposes. The PA inherited these buildings in 1994 and turned them into administrative headquarters. Today the muqatas are at the center of the PA’s state-building project.
Despite its colonial roots and neocolonial present, the muqata was once an iconic image of the second intifada: most of the compound was destroyed by the Israeli army in the 2002 re-invasion of the West Bank. The ravaged building became a physical marker of Israel’s invasion and its strategy of waging “total war” against the Palestinian people. Yet, it was also a symbol of defiance: Yasser Arafat remained, besieged, in the sole building of the muqata that remained standing until he became mysteriously ill and later died in 2004.
The reconfiguration of the muqata, both physically and symbolically, began in earnest following Arafat’s death. In October 2005, the PA announced plans to revamp the muqata, in cooperation with the UNDP, funded by the Japanese government. At the signing ceremony, Rafiq Husseini, then PA president Mahmoud Abbas’ chief of staff, described the PA’s vision of a “newmuqata” as follows: “We need a new headquarters for the president where he can meet world leaders and deal with the world in a modern and civilized manner.”
The reconfiguration was not restricted to the Ramallah muqata alone. The PA is now redesigning its administrative buildings throughout the West Bank and pursuing a much broader spatial transformation. As Israel solidified a system of fragmented Palestinian bantustans – surrounded by a growing network of Jewish colonies that are linked together by Jewish-only roads – the PA began transforming the spatial and physical territoriality of cantons like Ramallah by constructing new buildings and the infrastructure of a “modern state.”
An official involved in the project of rebuilding the muqata in Ramallah describes it as the PA’s attempt to build an image of “grandeur that creates the impression that we have a state.” Explaining their rationale, he continues: “We can look, act, believe, and walk like a proper state. Alongside building the institutions and economic policies for a state, we can also build the pillars of state, including a presidential palace.”
Without any sense of irony, the officials are building effigies and physical representations of statehood, which create the false sense that statehood is around the corner, as the settler colonial project becomes more entrenched.
The bid to create spaces where Palestinians relate to the world in a “civilized” manner is also about creating new subjects of the state. It reflects what Joseph Massad describes as the way the “realists’” leadership have transformed Palestinian political discourse, equating state-building and appeasement with being “modern” and “civilized,” while resistance and national liberation have been recast as “ideological.”
Yet these “civilized” spaces are the antithesis of what the Palestinian liberation movement has struggled for; they amount to sites of defeat where being modern is collapsed into accepting the very modes of domination Palestinians have struggled against. The new monumental muqata in Ramallah is architecturally designed in the image of a modern palace. The opulent building paradoxically invites comparison with structures of power erected by Arab regimes that popular movements in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria are struggling to overthrow.
The muqata in Bethlehem is now slated to be revamped along similar lines to the one in Ramallah, to the tune of approximately US$6 million. A lavish US$10 million presidential guesthouse is also being constructed in Surda, on the outskirts of Ramallah, on the way to Birzeit.
PECDAR (Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction), which supervised the construction of the muqata in Ramallah and is overseeing the construction of the new presidential guesthouse, awarded the contract to a real estate arm of Padico Holding, which is headed by Palestinian billionaire Munib al-Masri. This in turn underscores the dimensions of political economy underlying the process, where large capitalist entities with ties to the PA are being awarded the bulk of economic contracts and are beginning to dominate the economy.
Alongside the new PA headquarters, private sector commercial developers in Ramallah are constructing new glossy, glass buildings, often modeled in the image of Dubai’s architectural landscape. This new wave of construction is replacing spaces associated with the second intifada and images of collective struggle with spaces that invite colonized subjects to imagine themselves as part of a fantasy of linear, inclusive capitalist growth (and the fiction of prosperity for all), where the modern is equated with replicating European and American capitalism and a consumer lifestyle.
The grand new muqata in Ramallah similarly invites ordinary Palestinians to see themselves as modern citizens, and the illusion of a public space is created through lush green grass in the foreground of the building, regularly maintained with sprinklers.
Yet, those who designed the grass seem to be unaware of the stark contrast between the regular use of sprinklers to water the grass and the condition of ordinary Palestinians living under apartheid who are denied basic access to water, especially in areas like the Jordan Valley.
An official close to the project suggests that the Fatah officials behind the new muqata in Ramallah “believe this is what Arafat would have wanted – a grandiose palace,” a majestic, awe-inspiring symbol of state power and presidential authority. They are also building a museum for Arafat behind the muqata, close to Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum, attaching his memory to this spectacle of presidential state power.
After over sixty years of struggling for freedom from Zionist settler colonialism, Fatah officials are embracing the very symbols of dominant state power and authority, which upholds the system that oppresses them. The real issue underlying transformation of the muqata is the way the oppressed begin to accept the system of power and dominance they have long opposed.
The spatial aspect of the muqata brings this into focus: the wall and the watch towers built around the muqata to secure it, represent an eerie replica and reminder of the architecture of surveillance and control used by Israel’s apartheid wall.
Thinkers associated with the group Decolonizing Architecture, such as Yazid Anani and Sandi Hilal, have long warned against replicating the architecture and instruments of Israel’s systematic colonial domination, or reoccupying and reusing “colonial infrastructure and buildings” in the “very same way they were used under the colonial regime.”
The spatial reconfiguration of the PA headquarters in Ramallah, is the site of much darker colonial and imperial pasts that have now been effaced by the triumphant new structure. When the PA, under Arafat, appropriated the muqata as its own headquarters, it uncritically occupied and reused a key site of colonial domination and control. In 1930s, the muqata was used by the British army during its campaign to crush the Palestinian anti-colonial revolt of 1936-39; after 1967 the building became a military base and prison used by the Israeli colonial army.
An intellectual close to the grassroots movement against the wall in Bilin critiques the erasure of these histories through the construction of a monumental image of presidential authority:
“This space should have remained a witness to the crimes that were committed there…shame on us for covering the crimes that were perpetrated against us: there are chains there that were used [by colonial authorities in the past] to imprison us!”
It is these dual histories of colonial oppression, on the one hand, and imperial campaigns to crush liberation struggles, on the other – historically associated with this space – which are concealed by the transformation of the muqata. Instead of narrating these subjugated histories, the new PA headquarters treats the space as a harmless one, devoid of this dark past, in effect re-silencing the history of what was done to Palestinians’ colonized indigenous bodies.
The transgressive spaces constructed in post-apartheid South Africa offer an important counter-point, where the oppressed expose the hidden histories of domination, true to the spirit of liberation. For instance, the District Six Museum was built in 1994 “to keep alive the memories of District Six and displaced people everywhere.”
District Six is a part of Cape Town, where 60,000 black South Africans were forcibly uprooted after the apartheid regime declared the district a white-only area in 1966. The museum was created “as a vehicle for advocating social justice” and a “space for reflection and contemplation…challenging the distortions and half-truths which propped up the history of Cape Town and (apartheid) South Africa.”
The transgressive space recovers the memories of apartheid in order to bring them to bear on – and ultimately re-make – the present. Spaces like these contribute to the ongoing struggle to decolonize the imagination from its Western dominated moorings, by exposing these histories of domination, and in doing so, opening up the present to more emancipatory political horizons and ideals of liberation, such equality, return, and justice, which the Palestinians have long upheld.
For decades, the Palestinian liberation struggle has also been about what Edward Said called the “struggle to narrate” – both the history of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine from 1948 to the present and the hidden genealogies of racialized oppression the Palestinians endured.
For decades this narration also informed a humanist vision of liberation that looked beyond racialized hierarchies of colonizer and colonized. Today, the space to narrate this genealogy and re-imagine this political horizon are shrinking in the new spatial reordering of Ramallah, where neoliberalism and the European nation-state order are embraced as benign models and as substitutes for liberation.