Orient House – ‘essential for the Palestinians of Jerusalem’

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Occupied Jerusalem Both ends of Abu Obaidah Street are blocked by tall cement slabs. Behind them lurks the graceful mansion called Orient House, home to the Arab Studies Society, the premier Palestinian institution in the Holy City. Half a dozen armed Israeli soldiers lounge in the sun behind the narrow entrance. The officer in charge glances at my passport and admits me to the compound. The only people allowed in are staff members and visitors going to the second floor offices of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).

On the first floor landing, a huge portrait of the late Faisal Husseini, founder of the society and paterfamilias of Palestinian Jerusalem, lies crumpled outside the door. Over the past twenty years, this modest research facility branched out, becoming the Palestinians’ unofficial political representative in Jerusalem and appropriating the name of the building, “Orient House” as its own.

On the night of Aug. 9-10, Israel occupied, searched and officially sealed the society’s premises on the lower floors. The contents remained undisturbed until Aug. 27. That evening, Dr Thomas Neu, ANERA’s local representative, found 20 “large” armed Israelis in the compound. They were from the municipality. The owner of the building, Taher Husseini, asked Neu, a US citizen, if he would witness Israel’s seizure of the society’s offices. Neu and Husseini roamed the offices of the Arab Studies Society. “Although things had been disrupted, most of the documents, photos and records were still there. The Israelis took handfuls of documents and put them into boxes. They also took the hard disk drives from the computers and placed them in the boxes with the documents. All were jumbled together in boxes without labels. This was a major, systematic raid.”

Neu promptly used his cell phone to contact US and European diplomatic representatives and informed them of what was happening. “The Israelis paid no attention, they clearly did not mind.” He was told that world attention was focused on Israel’s deployment outside the Bethlehem area village of Beit Jala. The Israeli army reoccupied part of the village as the packing progressed. By dawn on the 28th, Neu said: “All that was left behind [in the society’s offices] were the computer screens and keyboards, the office furniture and books in the library.”

On Aug. 28, a “new crew came,” he said. “These were police. They looked more intelligent than the first ones.” The boxes were packed into the “largest container truck I have ever seen… some of the furniture was also taken.” Husseini told Neu that 205 boxes of material had been taken. Later, fax machines and other items were carried away.

Neu continued his story: “It seems they had a second order from the municipality to seize the assets of the Arab Studies Society because the property tax [arnona] had not been paid.” The lorry drove away at first light on Aug. 29, just as the Israeli army pulled out of Beit Jala, under strong US and European pressure. A source close to the society said that “part of the tax had been paid and the remainder was in the process of being negotiated. There was no need to seize the assets of the society.”

“This is the second time the files of the society have been taken,” Neu stated. “The first was in 1988.” But this time the Israelis have taken much more: Original records on Palestinian property holdings and rights in Jerusalem and elsewhere and “highly sensitive documents” relating to Faisal Husseini’s role as ombudsman. “He mediated in marital disputes and family quarrels over land,” Neu stated. “So documents on these matters were kept at the society. The records of many Palestinian non-governmental bodies were stored here, including those of the Jerusalem Committee for the Prevention of Drug Abuse. People are afraid of how much the Israelis will learn about their personal problems. Shame still matters in this society. There were also the Palestinian files on the [secret] back channel negotiations [with Israel], providing the Israelis with information on Palestinian positions on fundamental issues,” Neu stated. “The society was putting down the roots of Palestinian civil society in Jerusalem. It will take years to recover.”

Right-wing Israelis are determined to see that the Arab Studies Society remains closed. On Monday the Israeli Mayor of Greater Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, asserted bluntly and with finality: “There is no Orient House; that institution is finished. Anyway it was a political bubble for which there was no popular support. Look at the protests outside after the closure. Those weren’t Jerusalemite Palestinians, they were `professional demonstrators’ from outside.” Olmert could not be more wrong. Faisal Husseini and Orient House were reference and refuge for Palestinian citizens of Jerusalem and the demonstrators who daily take up position on the busy corner of Abu Obaidah and Salaheddin streets are genuine Jerusalemites protesting the closure of the institution. From time to time they are joined by members of the International Solidarity Movement who recognise what the loss of Orient House means to ordinary Palestinians here, so much so that they have braved beatings by the Israeli police and arrest to protest the closure.

On Tuesday Orient House appealed to the European Union to “translate its firm opposition” to the occupation of the institution “into an active role implementing legally required protection mechanisms for the civilian Palestinian population and upholding Palestinian rights in accordance with international agreements.” This appeal was issued to coincide with the visit of Javier Solana, European commissioner, to Jerusalem.

Solana’s spokeswoman, Cristina Gallach, told this correspondent that European Union foreign ministers will be meeting during the coming weekend in Belgium and that the Middle East will be on their agenda. She said, however, that the issue of Israel’s closure and seizure of the assets of Orient House may be treated as a “confidence building measure.” This would relegate Orient House to a lowly position on a long list of “confidence building measures” which Israel will, ultimately, be expected to implement if and when there is agreement on a ceasefire and implementation of the Mitchell recommendations, which have been approved by both sides and the international community.

Orient House does not belong on a list for future consideration and implementation; it provided essential services and a national focus for the Palestinians of Jerusalem; without Orient House, they are adrift and at risk.

Mr. Michael Jansen contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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