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Date posted: May 31, 2003
By MIFTAH

"They use the logic of power, but we have the power of logic on our side."

The Orient House is a symbol of the unified Palestinian struggle to free east Jerusalem from Israeli occupation. In Jerusalem, it is the only building to have the Palestinian national flag raised on its roof. Unfortunately, the Israeli occupation forces stormed the Orient House on August 10, 2001, and briefly hoisted the Israeli flag in place of the Palestinian one. The Orient House is the official PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) headquarters and the cornerstone of political presence for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Physical History of the Orient House

This majestic and charming building, located in occupied Jerusalem's Abu Obeidah street, has stood witness during the dynamic events that have shaped the city of Jerusalem in the last century and continues to be of great historical, political and symbolic value to the Palestinian people. Built in 1897 by Ismail Musa Al-Husseini, the simple but tasteful building has a charm that captures the heart of all those who visit it.

In 1945, Ismail Husseini died and left his property to his son Ibrahim. During the period 1949-1950, the building was used as the headquarters for the Conciliation Committee and after by the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees). After that period, Ibrahim Husseini opened the Orient House to the public by transforming it into a hotel, referred to as the "New Orient House" Hotel. Among the first hotels to function in east Jerusalem, following the withdrawal of the British mandate forces in 1948 when there was great demand for such facilities. Sadly, as a result of political unrest during 1967 coupled with a precipitous decline in tourism, the hotel closed and the building was once again used as a private residence.

The poor economic conditions of the city forced the owners to neglect the maintenance of the House and for a while its charm had dimmed. The building was rescued from its state of disrepair in 1983 when the Arab Studies Society rented two sections of the building. However, it would not be long before the Israeli occupation forces closed the Orient House on the eve of July 28, 1988. It took several years before the Israeli government would allow the Arab Studies Society to re-open in the Orient House. In late July 1992, the whole building was rented by Faisal Husseini, who renovated the building and shortly afterwards it was able to welcome its guest as an official Palestinian guesthouse.

Important Visitors to the Orient House

The Orient House played host to many important guests adding to its historical and political value. In 1898 a tea party was held in honor of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. When Sharif Hussein Ben Ali (Sharif of Mecca) was buried in the Haram al-Sharif (Holy Sanctuary) in 1930, his sons, King Abdallah, King Ali and Prince Zaid accepted condolences at the Orient House. The Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie and Empress Minan of Abyssinia came to stay in the Orient House when the Italians overthrew him in 1936. The Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva was the first to visit the newly renovated Orient House. Following his visit, the Orient House welcomed successive European Troikas as well as European Foreign Ministers, in their individual capacities, despite opposition by the respective Israeli governments.

Biography and Legacy of Faisal Abdel Qader al-Hussein

At the heart of the Orient House was Faisal Abdel Qadar al-Husseini, PLO Executive Committee member, who sadly passed away in May 2001. Ghassan Al-Khatib, a Palestinian political analyst, said, "Husseini's death will affect the status of the Orient House, because much of its prestige was derived from the role of Faisal Husseini himself." Husseini was born in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 17, 1940, because his family was forced into exile by its stand against British rule. He grew up in Cairo, received military training in Iraq and later graduated form Damascus Military College in 1967. At the young age of 19 he founded the General Union of Palestinian Students. Returning to Jerusalem just before the 1967 Middle East War, he was one of the first members of the outlawed PLO in the 1960s as well as the Palestinian Liberation Army. In 1979 he founded and became the chairman of the Arab Studies Society. Since 1982, he was a member of the Supreme Muslim Council.

In the late 1980s, with Yasser Arafat in exile, Faisal Husseini became a leading Palestinian spokesperson and defender of the Intifada (uprising). He spent a total of three years in Israeli jails and four years under house arrest. He was the head of the Jerusalem National Council for Palestine, the Palestinian Delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference and Fatah-faction in the West Bank. In the Oslo Peace Talks he was Arafat's chief representative and since then has been active in promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. He often appeared on Israeli talk shows to diplomatically explain the Palestinian claim for Jerusalem, using the Hebrew that he mastered during his imprisonment. Most recently, he had devoted his attention to strengthening the Palestinian foothold in east Jerusalem. Faisal Husseini was married to Najat, with whom he had a daughter, Fadwa and a son, Abdel Kadar.

Offices of the Orient House

The Orient House offers Palestinians in Jerusalem social, economic and political support in a bid to offset the deprivations caused by the ongoing Israeli military occupation. It comprises of several offices, among them is the office of Faisal Husseini, which welcomes guests, performs secretarial tasks and updates the archives. It coordinates activities between the offices, makes appointments for the foreign and local press to meet with Faisal Husseini and organizes conferences. The International relations office comprises of several officers, each in charge of a particular geographic region, which maintains constant exchange of views with the countries on matters of politics, foreign affairs and the general situation of Palestinians and Jerusalem. They also coordinate official visits and activities with the regions they are assigned. The private sector and investment unit, founded in 1994, facilitates the private sector at the international and local levels. As a result of its location, the office tends to particularly focus on encouraging and advancing private investments in east Jerusalem. It works on maintaining a sound relationship between the Palestinian Authority and the local private sector. Press and public information office disseminate information on national and international levels. Social affairs office helps citizens of Jerusalem and the surrounding villages who are suffering from the Israeli occupation. The Arab population faces educational, financial, health and social difficulties, which the office tries to ease and solve. Finally the maps and survey office keeps records and facts pertaining to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Israeli Closures of the Orient House

The Orient House has received much opposition by successive Israeli governments threatened by its very existence. This is because, as mentioned above, the Orient House has come to symbolize the Palestinian claim to Jerusalem. In that regard, its existence is fundamental for Palestinians and zealously resented by many Israelis. Rafeal Eitan, a former Israeli right-wing politician, called it "a Palestinian state in the middle of Jerusalem". Inevitably, time and time again, threats of closing down the Orient House are made by successive Israeli governments.

Israel closed the Orient House in July 1988, claiming "security reasons" as a defence for their actions. The Orient House remained closed for a period of four years. In 1994, Israeli law banned PLO activity there and in 1996 when Binyamin Netanyahu was elected, he pledged to closedown the Orient House. In 1999, the Israeli Public Security Ministry presented the Orient House with an order commanding the closure of the office of Faisal Husseini, the maps and surveys office and the international relations office. Last but not least, in the early hours of August 10, 2001, Israeli occupation forces took siege of the Orient House

It must be made clearly stated that all these closures constituted a violation of international law as well as United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. In particular, the Security Council had adopted sixteen resolutions regarding Jerusalem and had continuously affirmed that any steps taken by Israel with the aim of changing the demographic composition, legal status or character of the city were null and void. Furthermore, they blatantly disregarded the Palestinian-Israeli understandings reached following the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991. Moreover, all post October 1993 closures violated a pledge made by the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, that the activities of Palestinian institutions functioning within the boundaries of east Jerusalem shall not be hampered.

Conflict Surrounding the Orient House

Israel attacks and accuses the Orient House because of three main reasons. First, they accuse the Orient house of being a PA (Palestinian Authority) institution, when the PA is bound to desist from political activity in Jerusalem until the future of the city is determined through negotiation. Secondly, foreign dignitaries insisting on visiting Mr. Husseini at the Orient House infuriate Israel. Finally, Israel claims sovereignty over all Jerusalem and thus are threatened by the Orient House as its main objective is to take back occupied east Jerusalem.

In response, the Palestinians note that no country recognizes Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem and this is reiterated by the Berlin Declaration of March 5, 1999. With regards the Orient House being a PA institution Mr. Izhaaq Budieri in an interview points out that the Orient House was established two years before the PA and exists as a result of the peace process, the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991 and the subsequent negotiations in Washington.

What the Future Holds

The Orient House faces it biggest struggle, with the death of its Head, Faisal Husseini, and its recent occupation and closure by the Israeli government. However, the staff of the Orient House vows to continue the legacy of Mr. Husseini and to maintain the Orient House as the PLO headquarters in east Jerusalem.

"We will continue on the path of Abu al-Abed (Faisal Husseini) until the liberation of Jerusalem, the capital of the independent Palestinian state."

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