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Israeli-palestinian Tensions Rise over Order to Close Orient House

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The Palestinians’ de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem has become the focal point of tensions that could lead to violence only days before Israel holds its elections.

Israel on Monday served closure orders on three Palestinian offices operating out of Orient House after the two sides failed to reach a compromise.

Officials on both sides had warned that closing the offices could prompt violent Palestinian protests. Some observers have maintained that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is purposely seeking a confrontation to bolster his support in next week’s elections.

Since the closure order was first issued last week, demonstrators for and against the move have gathered daily outside the compound.

Israel ordered the closure of the three offices on the grounds that they were operating on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in violation of the Oslo accords.

Under Israeli law, the Palestinians have 24 hours to petition Israel’s High Court of Justice to block the order from being carried out.

Israeli left-wing groups were prepared to petition the court on the Palestinians’ behalf, Israel Radio reported.

Should the court not accept the appeal, and the Palestinians fail to adhere to the closure orders, Israeli police would be sent to Orient House to carry them out — a move that Palestinian officials have warned could spark violence.

Israeli police were preparing for possible disturbances, according to Israeli Radio.

The move to issue the closure orders followed marathon negotiations between representatives from Israel’s Public Security Ministry and an Orient House representative.

Both sides had expressed optimism earlier in the day that a compromise was within reach.

But the talks reportedly broke down over the Palestinians’ refusal to meet an Israeli demand to not only move the offices’ activities outside of Jerusalem, but to physically close the offices as well.

The offices ordered closed were a geographic institute, an international desk, and the office of Faisal Husseini, the Palestinian official in charge of Jerusalem.

The Israeli action was sharply criticized by Palestinian officials, who accused Netanyahu of trying to force a confrontation in order to take a tough stand on Jerusalem prior to next week’s elections.

U.S. officials, concerned about the potential for violence, have been trying since last week to defuse the situation.

The U.S. consul general in Jerusalem has met with both sides in an effort to negotiate a compromise, and on Monday, before the closure order was issued, the U.S. State Department called on the two sides to work together to resolve the dispute.

“What’s important to us is that both sides seek to resolve this issue peacefully and avoid a larger problem,” said State Department spokesman James Rubin, who refused to weigh in on the substance of the dispute.

The closure order was issued after Israel’s Inner Security Cabinet voted earlier in the day to enforce it.

After Monday’s Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Israel had given negotiators ample time to try to resolve the dispute before the ministers reached their decision.

“If the Palestinians will not complete the closure on their own, we will carry out these orders,” Netanyahu told reporters Monday.

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