Friday’s Fact: Palestinian National Library to Replace Hospitality Palace, Spurs Debate Rather than Celebration

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The Presidential Guest Palace in Surda, near the West Bank city of Ramallah will be converted to a national Library, the Palestinian Minister of Culture, Ihab Bsseiso, officially announced during a press conference last Monday. This follows a week of speculation that culminated with the head of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction (PECDAR), which is the entity responsible for the project, Mohammad Shtayyeh, confirming the reports. While the decision is lauded by many Palestinian observers, others have criticized the high building costs and saw the decision as a misstep to correct previous missteps.

The Presidential Guest Palace was intended to serve as a residential and hospitality location for the President and guests of the state. According to PECDAR’s website “The goal of this project is to establish the Presidential Guest Palace in Surda, Ramallah within an area of 4,700 m2, along with a building for the Presidential Administration and Guards with an area of 4,000 m2, the construction process includes also preparing the surrounding area and two helipads, the project will be constructed over a land area of 27,000 m2.” However, the project, originally intended to take up to two years, has been underway for almost five years. Moreover, the Palestinian-financed project cost $13 million according to PECDAR’s website, although that figure was placed closer to $17.5 million by Alarabia news network quoting Shtayyeh. This is more than ten times the cost of the PECDAR-administered building of the three-story, 2,294 m2 law department in Al-Istiqlal University cost $1.3 million. According to Shtayyeh, the building was meant to be the seminal monument to modern Palestinian architecture in its beauty and inspiration from traditional Islamic architecture.

The decision was met with polarized responses. Bsseiso argued in his statement that the new National Library is strategically placed near the campus of Birzeit University. He also argued that it will serve not only “to bring knowledge to the new generations”, but also to “strategically service the Palestinian cause as an archive of Palestinian heritage, narrative, and history”.

On the other hand, many voices criticised the project for a variety of reasons. The initial project, publicly scorned for its lavish nature and high costs on the Palestinian tax payer, was seen as a waste of public funds by many, especially after the building of the presidential palaces in Ramallah and Jericho within the previous five years. Moreover, the conversion was also criticized since the initial purpose of the building makes it architecturally unsuitable for its new intended purpose thus high conversion costs are to be expected. In op-ed by Ma’an News Network’s editor in chief, Nasser Al Laham, criticized the short-sightedness of the decision. The author noted that in the age of rapid technological development investment in libraries instead of technologically appropriate tools is misguided. A second Ma’an op-ed called into attention the decision as a symptom of bad strategy by the Palestinian leadership, while perhaps well-intended.

Generally, commentators found the decision to dedicate more attention to Palestinian culture and education not to be objectionable. However, it seems that most critiques of the government’s approach are related to the mechanics of decision making. The public’s chief concern is not with overspending on books, but with the mismanagement of public funds and the lack of sound strategic planning.

Photograph: The Presidential Hospitality Palace to be turned into a national library. Credit: alarabiya.net.