Inside Orient House by Judy Lash Balint
August 12, 2001
Until last week, I used to regularly take people to see the outside of Orient House, which served as the headquarters of the Palestine Authority (PA) in Jerusalem, just around the corner from the American Colony Hotel, longtime hangout of Jerusalem's foreign press corps.
Today, in response to the murder of 14 Jewish civilians at a Jerusalem pizza parlor, Israeli road blocks prevent entry to the elegant former hotel known as Orient House.
As part of my duties as public relations coordinator for Beit Orot, a Jewish development initiative in eastern Jerusalem, I would point out the fact that any PA presence in Jerusalem is in contravention to the Oslo Accords. The two PLO flags flying atop the building just three blocks from the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim are an affront to Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, I would explain.
We would stand across the narrow street as I explained that PA officials entertain diplomats and foreign journalists here, and that the place essentially functions as the PA’s foreign ministry right under our noses, actively promoting the notion that Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state.
After the visitors took pictures of the armed, plainclothes guards standing at the ornate gate, invariably someone would ask if we could go in. I waved off the request as being too ludicrous to even merit a reply.
But once last year, before the start of the current Arab violence against the Jews, a group I was supposed to lead through Jewish eastern Jerusalem later in the day had arranged a meeting at Orient House. I found myself walking in their midst, through the guardhouse festooned with posters of Palestinian “martyrs,” and past the guards who normally shoot me dirty looks as our minibus pulls up.
After a security check of our bags we are in. Ushered into the eastern wing of the complex, we pass a gold plaque that proclaims we have entered the International Relations and Information Center, built in 1997 with funds donated by the government of Japan and the United Nations Development Program.
The conference room is unadorned but for some classy wood paneling and a large photo of a smiling Yasser Arafat. Our hosts were three suave assistants to the late Faisal Husseini, PA minister for Jerusalem Affairs. Rami Tahboub is clearly the most senior aide. In his early forties, Tahboub introduces his colleagues after letting us know he is the assistant for world affairs, while the others represent the international affairs department, one responsible for “Israeli and Jewish groups,” the other for Asian/Islamic affairs.
Chain smoking, dressed in an expensive Italian suit and speaking an accented but fluent English, Tahboub proceeds to tell us about the role of Orient House. “Our major business is to keep contact with the outside world and to let them know about Israeli violations of the Oslo accords in Jerusalem,” he says. “But we’re also responsible for reducing the suffering of the Palestinian community in east Jerusalem,” he adds.
Tahboub speaks for some forty minutes, espousing the PA party line on everything from confiscated ID cards to UN resolution 242. Where it gets interesting is when he airs his views on the future Palestinian state. I sit there in wonderment at the masterful Arab propaganda machine that in less than a decade has brought about a sea change in world opinion, making the very notion of a Palestinian state almost a given. Tahboub makes it clear that the capital of such a state will be Jerusalem, and the opening PA position on where the borders of Jerusalem would be defined, is wherever the PA feels like defining them. “It’s our decision--on the western side I would say at Road #1.” (Road #1 runs between Meah Shearim and Sheikh Jarrah/Wadi el Joz) “To the east, we could make the border on the Dead Sea,” he theorizes. “Israelis would show their passports if they want to go to Jericho.”
“Abu Dis,” (where Arafat had just finished construction on a building widely believed to be for use as his capital) won’t be the capital of Palestine. The capital is east Jerusalem, including the Old City,” Tahboub states categorically.
“After all,” he continues, taking a long draw on his cigarette and pausing for emphasis, “Jerusalem has been the capital of the Palestinian people for more than 5,000 years.”
A gasp from the Jewish visitors at the blatant expression of revisionist history draws sly smiles from the three Arabs, but no retraction.
Many of Tahboub's proposals that seemed so outrageous a year and a half ago have now become reality.
But Faisal Husseini is gone and the Israeli flag flies over Orient House. During last week's takeover, Israel confiscated a large stash of intelligence material there. The haul included maps and photographs of Israeli police and other Israeli security forces in operation as well as files on every Jewish community across the Green Line, vital for PA forces in a military offensive. Israel should have had the guts to lock the gates to Orient House years ago.
Will the closure of a building bring peace closer? I doubt it, and I wouldn't be surprised to have a new illegal PA presence to add to my tour itinerary a few weeks from now.