A Watery Landmark: First Aquarium Opens in Palestine

Palestine’s first aquarium opened on July 22. The aquarium is housed in an enormous building built to look like a ship, which rises out of Al Bireh’s bustling center in the occupied West Bank. Al Jazeera reports a serene interior—“dimly lit narrow corridors, transparent tanks filled with colorful fish.” Nearly 300 people have come every day since the aquarium opened.

A group of children were among the aquarium’s first visitors. “The children were amazed at what they saw,” said Nisreen Kababbha, a teacher. “They were very happy to learn about aquatic life and to see fish and creatures that they only seen before in cartoon shows. Even as teachers, we were pleasantly surprised by what we saw.”

Her only complaint was the ticket price—30 shekels (around $8). She wishes it were lower so that more people would attend.

The aquarium boasts coral, red sea fish, and Nile crocodiles. They hope to acquire jellyfish, seahorses and sharks in the future. A Palestinian news agency reports that 90% of the aquarium’s fish and plants are new to Palestine.

The aquarium took more than a year to set up. It was founded by Amjad Omar, who noticed that most major cities had aquariums, while Palestine had none. He pitched the idea to investors, who took to the idea wholeheartedly. The project took 16 months and cost nearly $1.2 million.

The project faced major obstacles. First of all, the aquarium is landlocked—it has no direct access to either ocean or lake water. So, the aquarium makes its own water on a water farm outside the city. “We can make seawater and lake water like in the Amazon River. It takes about six months, and then we can transfer the water to the aquarium. It is a lot of hard work, but we have no choice. We can’t bring water from the sea to here,” said Sufian al-Qawasmi, project engineer and one of Omar’s business partners. Quote courtesy of the Palestine Monitor.

But even more harrowing was Israel’s opposition to the project. Israeli authorities claimed that importing some of these aquatic animals was illegal and blocked them from entering the country.

“Many of the aquatic species could not be brought because of this new Israeli decision, which surprised us, since these species were brought to Israel a while ago and there was no objection by the authorities back then,” said Qawasmi.

Many animals died in containers at the border. “Our losses exceeded $47,000 due to delays in the arrival and detention of the aquatic animals,” said Qawasmi. “We reserve our right to bring water and aquatic organisms as other aquariums do, especially because our aquarium has been recognized internationally. We have the necessary local licenses.”

Qawasmi is not bothered by the idea of future antagonism from Israel. “Now we are an aquarium. It is respectable. It is not about politics but life. We will make partnerships with other aquariums and get fish that can live here. This means that Israel won’t be able to stop us. They cannot say no, because we are a true aquarium now. We are just like any other aquarium in the world.”

In a broad sense, the aquarium is an assertion of Palestinian dignity, of their right to seek normalcy in an environment of chaos and occupation.

“We are Palestinians, and we need to live. We need to live as people outside the [separation] wall and see what they see. We have our rights to do so. We are humans like anyone else. We don’t think about the wall, but we think about getting rights, and we have the rights to get this aquarium and see what people outside see,” said Qawasmi. Quotes courtesy of Al Jazeera.

Further Israeli opposition to this project would be appalling. The aquarium provides a glimpse of what peace could bring to the country—and that is a beautiful thing.