The Rise and Fall of Orient House

Israel's closure of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem is being interpreted by many in the West Bank and Gaza as the end of the peace process

Danny Rubinstein
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Danny Rubinstein

The entire area around Orient House in East Jerusalem was still closed by military decree on Saturday. Hundreds of Israeli policemen and security personnel manned roadblocks along all the streets that run between the Wadi Joz quarter, Nablus Road and the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce, which was also closed. At the corner of Abu Obeidah bin al-Jerakh Street (named for one of the first Islamic generals in the army of the prophet Mohammed), where Orient House is situated, a small group of young people from Italy were demonstrating that morning against the measures taken by Israel in Jerusalem. Among these protesters was Abd el-Kadr al-Husseini, the young son of Faisal al-Husseini, who died nearly two months ago.

Most of the land around Orient House is still owned by the Husseini family, the largest and best known of the Arab families of Jerusalem. The first house on the northern side of Abu Obeidah Street was built nearly 150 years ago by Rabah al-Husseini on an eight-dunam (two-acre) plot. It now houses the famous American Colony Hotel. The splendid older building at the center of the hotel compound was once the private home of Rabah al-Husseini. About 100 years ago, Musa Kazem al-Husseini built his home on a large plot next door. It now serves as the Dar el Tifl (House of the Child) school. Musa was the mayor of Jerusalem in the early 20th century, and was Faisal's grandfather.

Opposite the house, on the southern side of the street, Ismail al-Husseini built his grand mansion in 1897. This is the building that has come to be known as Orient House. The entrance to the three-story building is below an arched gable set off by ornate wooden trimming. Over the years, the building and the compound that surrounds it have become a national symbol for Jerusalem's Arabs. The seat of the Palestinian governor of Abu Dis, which was also closed early Friday morning, and the East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce may have played a more important role in the everyday life of the Arabs of Jerusalem. But the struggle over Orient House, which has been going on for close to 20 years, has made it an extremely well-known institution among the international media and the diplomatic corps, and therefore much more politically significant.

During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, the grand mansions of the al-Husseini family served as public structures and aided in the war effort. Orphans and refugees from Deir Yassin were housed in Musa Kazem's home, and a clinic and convalescent home for Arabs wounded in the battles was set up in Ismail al-Husseini's house.

After the war, a small pension called New Orient House was opened in the building, and additional structures were put up in the backyard and rented as office space. Following the 1967 war, the upper story of Orient House was rented to UNWRA, the UN Relief and Works Agency, which still operates on the site. One of the backyard offices was rented during the 1970s to an Israeli film company that created, among other things, "Pillar of Fire" (Amud Ha'esh), a state-produced television documentary series about the history of Zionism.

In 1983, the entire building behind Orient House was rented by the Arab Studies Society, which was founded and operated by Faisal al-Husseini. The society established an archive and library on the site, which were intended to document the history of the Arabs of Palestine. It was clear that the institution wished to establish a broader base for the Palestinian national consciousness, and that most of its budget came directly or indirectly from the PLO treasury.

All of this induced successive governments of Israel to wage a prolonged struggle against the society and its chairman. Faisal al-Husseini was arrested on several occasions, and the society was served with court orders that called for it to suspend its activities. During the first Intifada, the society's offices were closed for a period of about three years.

Diplomats come and go

Orient House became a household name for the arduous chronicle of the conflict. In 1991, Faisal al-Husseini played a major role in preparing the Palestinian delegation for the Madrid peace conference. The delegation was headquartered at Orient House, and it was from here that dozens of the delegates set out for Amman, on their way to Madrid, accompanied by cheering throngs.

Hatem Abd el-Kadr, who serves as a Jerusalem delegate to the Palestine Legislative Council (the Palestinian parliament) and took part in the Madrid delegation, said last Friday that for him, Orient House was not merely a Palestinian national symbol in Jerusalem, but a symbol of the peace process. Therefore, the "reoccupation of Orient House" (as the move has been described in the Palestinian media) and the closure of its institutions are being interpreted by many in the West Bank and Gaza as the end of the peace process and the resumption of the pre-Oslo model of occupation. Yesterday, Abd el-Kadr was lightly injured in a protest outside Orient House.

Besides the Arab Studies Society, directed by Ishaq Budeiri, which continued to operate from the building behind Orient House, there are several other offices in the small compound, which were not officially linked to the Palestinian Authority but rather to the PLO. The reason for this differentiation is a section of the Oslo Accords that stated that until a permanent settlement is reached, the Authority would not operate in Jerusalem, only in the West Bank and Gaza. Nevertheless, it was agreed that the Palestinian institutions that had been working in Jerusalem up until the signing of the accords would continue to operate in the city.

Palestinian activity at Orient House was, then, sanctioned by a compromise formula. Both sides were aware that the institutions working there were of a nationalist Palestinian nature, but nevertheless remained legally outside the official branches of the Palestinian government. Faisal al-Husseini, as chairman of the "Jerusalem National Council," was appointed by Arafat as the PLO executive committee member in charge of Jerusalem; he encouraged a great deal of activity at Orient House and transformed it into an important institution.

Orient House became best known for its international relations department (also known as the diplomatic department), which was headed by Sharif al-Husseini. This department saw to it that diplomats from all over the world were invited to meet Palestinian representatives at Orient House. The background for the international recognition of Orient House is fairly well known. Nearly every country in the world (including countries friendly to Israel, most prominent among them the United States) do not recognize Israel's annexation of East Jerusalem, and even refuse to view West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Foreign consuls resident in Jerusalem became constant callers at Orient House. They made sure - especially during the Rabin and Peres administrations - to bring senior officials from their governments for visits there. Many important visitors to Israel, including heads of state, would meet the president, prime minister and foreign minister of Israel in West Jerusalem, and then go to East Jerusalem to meet al-Husseini and other Palestinian notables at Orient House.

For Israel, this was a humiliating situation, one in which the capital of Israel was a quasi-divided city, whose eastern part seemed to be under a different government - a Palestinian one. The Netanyahu government, which pledged to close Orient House, did not do so, although it was successful at substantially reducing the scope of visits by high-ranking foreign visitors.

Another important institution at Orient House was the geographical department, headed by Khalil Tufakji. It was engaged in tracking the development of settlements all over the West Bank, and made a concerted effort to record everything that had to do with real estate ownership and possession in East Jerusalem. In recent years, Tufakji's department also began to create a record of Arab-owned properties in West Jerusalem prior to 1948. "If the Israelis are seizing assets in East Jerusalem that were once Jewish-owned, why shouldn't we demand the Arab assets in the western part of the city?" Husseini asked.

Orient House also housed departments for social affairs, religious sites, education and health, but their activities were limited in scope. Everything was coordinated by Faisal al-Husseini, who was assisted by an advisory council that he set up, which included representatives from all the Palestinian streams . The council included delegates from Hamas and the leftist fronts, all of whom trusted al-Husseini.

After his death two months ago, activity at Orient House began to taper off. In the past, many individuals would come by to hold consultations with the man who had been the highest-ranking Palestinian personage in Jerusalem. Husseini would be sought out for help on every possible subject: arbitration of disputes, financial assistance, advice on family affairs, problems with the Israel administration or with the Palestinian Authority - and he would try to help. Foreign diplomats would also come fairly often, as did senior church officials, foreign delegations, and Israelis who became his friends. The most recent event held at Orient House was a memorial ceremony that marked the 40th day of Faisal al-Husseini's death. It was held about one month ago, albeit on a sharply reduced scale, due to restrictions imposed by the police.



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