Dubai, UAE – At the Expo 2020 Dubai, organisers of the Palestine pavilion term the state “a deeply historic land with ancient buildings”, adding that “along with its burgeoning tourism, it has a busy manufacturing sector and there are many opportunities for investment”.
Given the queues witnessed outside the pavilion, the organisers are hoping for that interest to be transformed into tourism and economic opportunities despite the hardships and restrictions facing Palestinians because of the Israeli occupation which did not get a lot of space or mention at the pavilion.
The state of Israel came into being in 1948 in a violent process that entailed the ethnic cleansing of Palestine where more than 750,000 people were forcibly expelled.
As the war ended, Israeli forces controlled about 78 percent of historic Palestine with the remaining land falling under Egypt’s and Jordan’s administration.
In the 1967 war, known as the “Naksa”, Israel occupied the remaining Palestinian territories of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and continues to occupy them until today. It also absorbed the additional territory from Egypt and Syria.
By then, Israel had displaced an additional 430,000 Palestinians from their homes and took over territory more than three times its size.
“Our slogan at this pavilion is ‘past, present and future’,” Raseel Amr, the Palestine pavilion’s media liaison officer, told Al Jazeera.
“The occupation doesn’t stop us from being successful and achieving a lot. We have a lot of success stories, despite the occupation, and that shows it hasn’t stopped us from exceeding and going beyond.
“Through this pavilion, we try and highlight the civilisation in Palestine. It’s very important for us to promote the economic side, see if we can get new opportunities through the Expo and highlight that Palestine is also a place for tourism because people don’t know that.
“We want to show we have touristy places, archaeological sites and it’s a place where people come for religious tourism. We want to show the positive side of Palestine that many people may not be aware of.”
In a report released in November, the United Nations warned that “the ‘dire’ economic and fiscal situation in Palestine required integrated response” and that “years of economic stagnation in the West Bank was followed by a sharp GDP per capita decline in 2020”.
“The economy continues its multi-decade decline in the Gaza Strip, with persistently high unemployment – particularly among women,” the report added.
“It is increasingly difficult for the PA (Palestinian Authority) to cover its minimum expenditures, let alone make critical investments in the economy and the Palestinian people”, said Tor Wennesland, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.
The report also cited longstanding shortages of public funds as a contributor to the crisis and added that Israel “continues to deduct and hold a portion of so-called clearance revenues, which the Government unilaterally equates the amount paid by the Palestinians to its prisoners, their families, or the families of those killed or injured during attacks”.
A Human Rights Watch report grouped at least five categories of “major violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law” that characterise Israel’s occupation of Palestine – unlawful killings, abusive detention, blockade of the Gaza Strip and restrictions on Palestinian movement, the development of settlements, and discriminatory policies that disadvantage Palestinians.
The pavilion itself portrays Palestine through the five senses, taking visitors on a journey of the land via seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting what the state has to offer: Videos of the historic sites, a call to prayer from a mosque, a church bell, a piece of rock from the Dome of the Rock, the aroma of olives, a virtual reality (VR) tour of religious sites and a food table with virtual authentic cuisines and menus to browse.
“Visitors here are surprised to see these parts of Palestine exist. We are trying to break the stereotype. We have a shop here that contains items that are all made in Palestine. The staff working there have a shop in Bethlehem and they came here to promote Palestinian products and goods.”
Amr added that while there are references to the occupation on-site, the objective was to promote the state’s success and opportunities “through a positive image, one that focuses on daily life and how people go about their lives”.
“In Touch Palestine, there is the Key of Return, an original key from 1948 when a lot of Palestinian families were forced out of their houses by the occupation and they used these keys to lock their houses. We call it the Key of Return because we hope that one day we’ll go back and use those keys.
“In the Smell Palestine area, we mention the martyrs. We do acknowledge that Palestine is that but it’s also more than that and that’s what we’re trying to promote,” added Amr.