"Our most sensitive material was confiscated... Maps, everything related to final status agreement ... We are talking about files, and secret materials, confidential matters." Halim Abu Shamseyeh Orient House,International Relations Dept.
"Israeli police seized computers, files and maps used in various rounds of peace negotiations, bundling them into five lorries." "We will take every necessary action to keep the PLO out of Jerusalem. Jerusalem is an Israeli city.'' Uzi Landau Israeli Public Security Minister
[The Guardian, UK - Jerusalem, London - 11 August]: Israeli riot police on horseback yesterday charged into protesters sitting outside Orient House, the barricaded mansion that serves as an unofficial Palestinian capital, reopening the battle for Jerusalem. The occupation of Orient House, headquarters of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in Jerusalem, by the Israeli army is one of the biggest acts of aggrandisement since the intifada began 11 months ago.
The lowering of the Palestinian flag and the hoisting of the Israeli flag over Orient House for the first time in a decade is a hugely symbolic and deeply humiliating sight for the Palestinians of Arab East Jerusalem. The Israeli government claims the whole of Jerusalem, which it insists is its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The occupation of Orient House came at 2 am. In the chaotic scenes that followed, screaming protesters - a handful of leftwing Israelis and pro-Palestinian demonstrators from overseas - were beaten and punched by Israeli riot police, and then dragged away.
Orient House has been the Palestinian headquarters in Jerusalem for more than 30 years - a place to go for advice on civil matters as well as a political centre. But during those decades, Israel has been steadily strangling east Jerusalem, in the main by cutting it off from the rest of the West Bank. Gradual build-up
Over that period, the Israelis have been gradually attempting to exert more control over East Jerusalem, refusing building permits for Palestinians, knocking down Palestinian homes and buying up property. The acquisition of property in east Jerusalem by Jews, in particular on in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, is a source of friction.
Sari Nusseibeh, who was part of the first Palestinian negotiating team to talk to Israel in Madrid in 1991, said of the occupation of Orient House, which was used by the negotiators as a base: "As far as I can see, this is basically a message to us - the Palestinian people, not the Palestinian authority, or Hamas activists, but ordinary Palestinians who live with the hope of peace and the peace process - that the entire peace process born right here in Orient House is entirely closed off. Basically, Israel is telling us, 'Goodbye to peace'."
Eleven months after the then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, ignited a Palestinian uprising by visiting the disputed holy site revered by Muslims as the Haram as-Sharif and by Jews as the Temple Mount, the reoccupation of Orient House returns the intifada to Jerusalem.
The takeover was a purely political act; no Israeli security official has suggested that Orient House was used as the launchpad for suicide bombers, or other attacks inside the Jewish state. It also threatens to bring the 300,000 Palestinian residents of the city, who have so far stayed apart from the uprising, into direct confrontation with Israel.
"Over the last 10 months, Jerusalem was very quiet but this provocation will change all of that because Orient House is a symbol of our dignity, and we have no dignity without Orient House," said Halim Abu Shamseyeh, who works in the international relations department of the building.
For the Palestinians, the reoccupation of Orient House, a former hotel belonging an aristocratic Arab family, eclipsed the seizure of nine other Palestinian offices in the adjoining village of Abu Dis, which was awarded to Yasser Arafat's authority under the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
The sprawling white mansion epitomises their aspirations for a state with its capital in Jerusalem, and has played host to more than 60 foreign dignitaries - presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers - since 1993. It has also hosted hundreds of Israelis, peace activists and negotiators. "This is the place where the peace process began. Even the calls for a peace process were made by Palestinian activists from here," said Dr Nusseibeh, who retreated from political life to head East Jerusalem's Al-Quds university.
Yesterday, the university, located in Abu Dis, was off limits where a curfew was imposed. So were a theatre, and several offices located on the same road as Orient House, including those of British Airways, the British Council, and human rights lawyers. In Abu Dis, Israeli soldiers lounged outside the governor's office.
Israel's public security minister, Uzi Landau, described the takeover as "measured" retaliation for Thursday's suicide bombing attack in Jewish West Jerusalem. He also said the takeover was permanent. "From the moment we start enforcing the law in Jerusalem and preventing the Palestinian flag and processions through the streets of the city, we will also be able to limit the terror."
Seven Palestinian security guards were arrested in the raid on Orient House, and officials said the Israeli police also seized computers, files and maps used in various rounds of peace negotiations, bundling them into five lorries.
"Our most sensitive material was confiscated," said Halim Abu Shamseyeh. "Maps, everything related to final status agreement ... We are talking about files, and secret materials, confidential matters."
Madhi Abdul Hadi, director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, round the corner from Orient House, said: "It is a war of symbols, of flags, of different narratives."
He said the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, a third of the city's overall population, remained steadfast in spite of their isolation from the West Bank. He said that the Israelis had only 6.5 sq km of Jerusalem in 1967 and now had 72 sq km and had encircled East Jerusalem with 13 settlements.
Palestinians object to what they call the Judaisation of the Old City. Mr Sharon has bought a home there, though he does not live there. He has provocatively draped a huge Israeli flag almost the length of the house, which lies on one of the main arteries used by the Palestinians.
Palestinian life within East Jerusalem has been deteriorating in contrast with Israeli West Jerusalem, which is relatively prosperous. Schools, medical facilities and commerce in East Jerusalem have suffered because of Israel's decision to cut it off from the West Bank.
In spite of its tactics, the Palestinian population is still increasing at a faster rate than the Israelis', at 3.5% a year as against 1%."We will not disappear," Mr Hadi said.
Elsewhere, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met with foreign envoys in the West Bank town of Ramallah and asked for international intervention in the conflict with Israel. U.S. and Russian envoys, speaking in Damascus and Ramallah respectively, condemned Israel's takeover of the PLO headquarters, which came in response to a suicide bombing that killed 15 people, including the assailant, this week in Jerusalem.
In the Gaza Strip, two Palestinians died Saturday of gunshot wounds sustained a day earlier in a clash with Israeli soldiers. The two had been among a group of Palestinians throwing stones at soldiers at the Karni crossing point. In all, six Palestinians were wounded in the clash, and one remained in critical condition. More than 560 people have been killed on the Palestinian side and more than 150 on the Israeli side since hostilities broke out in September.
Israel's takeover of the PLO headquarters, known as the Orient House, constituted its most direct challenge to Palestinian political aspirations in the city. The Palestinians want to establish a capital in traditionally Arab east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, and they see the Orient House as the core of a future government complex.
In peace talks that broke down earlier this year, Israel's previous government, led by Ehud Barak, had offered the Palestinians a measure of control in east Jerusalem. However, the Palestinians said the offer did not go far enough. The current government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says it will never relinquish control over any area of Jerusalem.
Speaking in Damascus, Syria, U.S. envoy David Satterfield said the takeover of Orient House represented a ``political escalation.'' His Russian counterpart, Andrei Vdovin, speaking after a meeting with Arafat in Ramallah, that it was a violation of earlier peace accords ``and complicates the situation more and more.''
On Saturday, a dozen Palestinian officials, including Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi and Mohammed Barakeh, an Arab member of the Israeli parliament, marched toward the Orient House. They were pushed back by Israeli police who blocked access roads to the building with barricades. A shouting match ensued at one of the barricades, and officers shoved Ashrawi and the others.
Ashrawi, short of breath after the scuffle, said Palestinians would protest outside the Orient House every day. ``This is our city ... and the Orient House is our house,'' she said.
Later, more protesters arrived, including activists from the United States and Europe. Police tore up signs and shoved the demonstrators down the street. Twelve demonstrators were arrested, including several foreigners, police said.
Palestinian officials said the takeover of the Orient House violated previous Israeli assurances that Palestinian institutions in east Jerusalem would not be harmed. Israeli officials said the government was no longer bound by those promises because the Orient House was not being used for its original purpose of directing cultural activities and providing social services for Palestinians in east Jerusalem.
Israeli Public Security Minister Uzi Landau alleged that Palestinian security forces were using the Orient House and other institutions to plot attacks on Israelis. The raid was also meant to cement Israeli claims to the city, Landau said. ``We will take every necessary action to keep the PLO out of Jerusalem,'' he said. ``Jerusalem is an Israeli city.''