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Israeli Takeover of Orient House Sparks Arab Anger, Israeli Debate

August 14, 2001
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For some Israelis, it was a brilliant maneuver. Others were far less impressed.

After a Palestinian suicide bomber entered a Jerusalem pizzeria on Aug. 9 and detonated a duffel bag filled with explosives — killing 15 people, many of them children — Israel’s Cabinet convened to consider a response.

Many Palestinians feared the worst — and, indeed, some Israelis wanted to see blood repaid with blood.

But the day after the attack, Israeli security forces took an unexpected step, closing the Palestinians’ unofficial headquarters in eastern Jerusalem.

Along with taking over the building known as Orient House, Israeli security forces last Friday raided Palestinian Authority buildings in Abu Dis, located on Jerusalem’s outskirts.

It was not the expected military reaction, but some Israeli analysts still said the move was a strike at the Palestinian jugular.

Western governments, including the United States, criticized the move as a “political escalation.”

The government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon justified the actions, saying the Palestinian Authority was using its offices in and around Jerusalem to support terrorists.

Moreover, the government said, the moves taken last Friday — including an Israeli airstrike on an empty Palestinian police station in Ramallah — were a restrained, bloodless response to the pizzeria attack.

Bloodless or not, the international community took a dim view of the Israeli actions.

The buildings Israel shut down in Abu Dis were important administrative centers for Arabs living in the Jerusalem area, but it was Orient House that got the attention.

Owned for generations by the family of the late Faisal Husseini — the top Palestinian official in Jerusalem until his recent death — Orient House long has been a thorn in the side of Israel.

Husseini repeatedly angered Israeli officials by hosting foreign dignitaries at Orient House, which Israel saw as an attempt to legitimize Palestinian claims on Jerusalem.

In the late 1980s, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir shut down Orient House temporarily.

Angered by the visits of foreign officials, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to close Orient House late in his term — but backed down after Israel’s High Court of Justice intervened.

Now, the Sharon government has succeeded in closing it down.

On Sunday, Ahmed Karia, a Palestinian negotiator and speaker of the Palestinian legislative council, issued a call to arms, saying he supports armed resistance to retaliate for Israel’s moves in eastern Jerusalem.

“Resistance of this Israeli policy, using all means, has now become legitimate as well as a national and religious duty,” Karia said.

In what was widely viewed as an attempt to inflame Palestinian passions, Karia also said that Israel next would seize the Al-Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount. He did not cite any basis for the charge.

On Monday, Palestinians held a one-day strike in eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip to protest the Orient House takeover.

Outside Orient House, Israeli police scuffled with dozens of demonstrators who tried to raise a Palestinian flag. Such scuffles have occurred daily since last Friday’s takeover.

In the Arab world, reaction to what they saw as a harsh rebuke to Palestinian aspirations in Jerusalem was swift and angry.

Even Jordan’s King Abdullah described the Orient House takeover as “a provocative aggression against Palestinian rights and the Arab character of Jerusalem.”

Amre Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, called the move “a regional catastrophe” and urged Arabs to “prepare for the worst scenario in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The wisdom of the move also was debated across Israel.

In an editorial, the Jerusalem Post said the Orient House takeover and the moves against the Abu Dis offices marked “the first time in nearly a decade that the government has acted decisively to end the P.A.’s encroachment on Israel’s capital.”

The move may well have sent Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat a message that if he “fails to rein in terror, Israel might very well close down further P.A. offices, only next time in places such as Ramallah or Gaza,” the paper said.

Supporters of the move note that Arafat, who does not want to lose ground in Jerusalem, was put on the defensive. They point out that he subsequently ordered the arrest of six Islamic terrorists — among them Abdullah Barghouti, who is suspected of having dispatched the suicide bomber to the pizzeria last week.

Opponents, however, say the Sharon government succeeded only in shifting world attention away from the terror bombing.

They point out that Arafat has sent a series of urgent cables to world leaders and is preparing an international tour to drum up support for Palestinian rights to Orient House.

Among the critics, Ha’aretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote this week that the “Israeli flag waving over Orient House was the funeral of the Oslo Accords.”

Yossi Beilin, a former justice minister and an architect of the accords, told JTA, “Sharon’s action makes Orient House into the fourth holiest place to Islam.

“Every day that passes makes the issue more difficult,” he said. “Sharon always does those things. He makes a drastic move, and then he does not know how to get out of it.”

Already, some Israelis are envisioning a time when Israel will find itself having to withdraw from Orient House — as a host of Palestinian officials march triumphantly in.

Reuven Merhav, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, said over the weekend that Israel had “scored a pleasant and comfortable victory in a very important arena.”

“But this is merely a tactical victory,” he warned. “We are only at the beginning” of the battle over Jerusalem — “certainly not at its end.”

The Orient House takeover also strained Sharon’s unity government.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres opposed the Cabinet decision to close down Orient House, and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, who is seeking the Labor Party leadership, said Sharon had made it “convenient” for the world to “forget about Palestinian terrorism.”

Among the supporters, the minister of public security, Uzi Landau, said he felt “privileged” to see the Israeli flag fly over Orient House.

Landau had the support of many Israelis — who feel only bold moves will impress on Arafat that he will lose assets if he continues to tolerate terror — but others remained skeptical.

For them, it will not be so easy to overcome Palestinian aspirations, especially in the matter of Jerusalem.

As the late Faisal Husseini once put it: “The Arabs of Jerusalem need not establish facts on the ground. They ARE facts on the ground.”

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