Israel denies Orient House promise

Palestinian Authority claims Olmert assured Rice he'd permit reopening of PLO's Jerusalem HQ.

Orient house 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Orient house 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel on Thursday rejected claims by senior PA officials that it has reneged on a promise to allow the reopening of Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem this month. Two weeks ago, the Interior Ministry renewed a 2001 decree that shut down Orient House, a building north of Jerusalem's Old City that once served as the PLO's local headquarters. The center was ordered closed during the second intifada, along with the Arab Chambers of Commerce. The decree's renewal was slammed on Thursday by an adviser to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, who said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had made a commitment to the Palestinians and to US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to allow the buildings to reopen. "This is not a good sign for the peace process," the adviser said. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, a senior Israeli official dismissed the allegation, saying that there was "no change in the longstanding policy [to keep the centers shut]." A Jerusalem Police spokesman told the Post that officers made routine visits to Orient House and other Palestinian centers in order to enforce the decree, adding that no illegal activities were found during the patrols. "Nothing is happening there," the spokesman said. "Since its closure in 2001, Orient House has remained shut with no one arriving at the site." The closure has led to a dramatic reduction in anti-Israeli activity in east Jerusalem, and an increase in security in the Old City, according to Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shalom Harari, a former senior adviser on Palestinian affairs at the Defense Ministry. "Since its closure, the Palestinians have been mourning the loss of Orient House, and say they have lost the center of their revolutionary zeal in Jerusalem," Harari told the Post. Addressing the Palestinian claim that Olmert had vowed to allow the building to reopen, Harari said," I don't know if such a promise was made, but if it was, it was made secretly, because nothing has been made public about such a commitment." During the Oslo peace process, Orient House acted as "an organizing factor" for riots and demonstrations, Harari said. "We allowed the PLO to operate in Jerusalem during the 1990s, but not the Palestinian Authority," he said, adding that Orient House was quickly infiltrated by PA elements who turned it into a kind of "extraterritorial embassy." "It began issuing land rights, settling civil disputes - it became an institution," Harari said. "Police were afraid to enter or search it, and Orient House enjoyed an informal diplomatic immunity status." "The shutting down of Orient House was the end result of a long effort by right-wing Knesset Members, led by [then-Public Security Minister] Uzi Landau, who said that Orient's use as a PA base was a violation of Oslo. They said an entity within an entity was being created," Harari said. "After a major suicide bombing, Landau effectively forced the police to close it down," Harari said, adding that police did not at first wish to raid the center due to fears of a violent backlash, which never materialized. Following the raid, the center's archives were confiscated, and many documents surfaced that vindicated the claims of Knesset members who had sought to close the center down, Harari said. "I can say that closing down Orient House was one of main acts that caused a reduction in open anti-Israeli activity in Jerusalem," he said. AP contributed to this report.