Israel strikes at Palestinian nationalism itself

Israel has closed nine Palestinian offices in E. Jerusalem since a fatal blast last week.

In a city of colliding nationalisms, the hoisting of the Israeli flag spoke even louder than the sound of the soldiers breaking open locks and carting away a people's archives and heritage in the middle of the night.

To dovish Israelis, the seizure of the Orient House mansion, headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in occupied East Jerusalem seemed a strange form of retaliation for a devastating Hamas suicide bombing Thursday that killed 15. (At press time, another suicide bomb had exploded near Haifa, injuring more than 15. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility.) And several mainstream Israeli commentators used the word "childish" yesterday to describe the lowering of the black, green, white and red Palestinian flag and the hoisting of the blue and white Israeli banner in its place.

According to officials in Israel's ultranationalist government, hoisting the Star of David was meant to signal the start of a new era in policymaking toward Palestinians in the city, one in which Israel will crush all manifestations of Palestinian nationalism - in this case, public institutions. "The picture of Orient House with an Israeli flag on it was very clear - there has been a change in our Jerusalem policy," says Gideon Ezra, the deputy minister of internal security. Amid international protests over the seizure, the Israeli flag was quietly lowered late Friday, but Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nevertheless maintained that the seizure would be "forever."

Other officials hinted troops might be withdrawn, but stressed the PLO headquarters would not be allowed to function again.

"Ehud Barak wanted to give the Palestinians part of Jerusalem, and some Palestinians felt that Jerusalem already belongs to them," says Mr. Ezra, referring to the former Labor party prime minister who was trounced by the Likud party's Sharon in February elections. "We are emphasizing a different point of view - to give the Palestinians nothing."

That is perhaps the clearest statement to date Mr. Sharon's stance toward East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war, annexed, and then gave to Jewish settlers on a massive scale in contravention of international law.

The seizure of Orient House has been in the works for months, and has been an aspiration of Likud's for years, Ezra says. But the government decided to implement the measure only after Thursday's suicide attack.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell termed the seizure of Orient House "a political escalation."

In addition to shutting the Palestinian institutions, Israel also intends to open new police stations in Arab parts of the city, Ezra says. "We want to do this to emphasize we are in charge of Jerusalem," he said.

Other steps to assert Israeli sovereignty will include carrying out even more demolitions of houses built "illegally" by Palestinians, Ezra says.

Massive house demolitions have recently taken place in the Shuafat Refugee Camp in north Jerusalem, which abuts the expanding Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze'ev.

Palestinians and Israeli liberals say that Israel's zoning policy precludes legal building by Jerusalem Arabs in most areas, forcing them to build "illegally."

Demographic battle

The lowering of the Palestinian flag also symbolized the burial of one Israeli school of thought on Jerusalem and the ascendance of another.

Key figures in Israel's Labor Party, worried over a high Arab birthrate that could put the city's Jewish majority in question, sought last year to strike a deal with the mainstream Palestinian leadership that would have relinquished sovereignty over Arab neighborhoods to the Palestinians, while gaining recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem-area settlements.

They were not able to agree with the Palestinians on key matters related to the walled Old City and its sacred sites, but doves argue that they made some progress in the talks, which broke off in January.

Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a key force in trying to reach such a compromise, called the takeover of Orient House "reckless" and "a provocation."

"Sharon does not understand that eventually it is in our interest to have a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem," Mr. Beilin says.

Likud's approach, by contrast, is that all of what is currently defined by Israel as Jerusalem is part of the country's eternal and undivided capital, and that Israel can control the entire area if only it is determined enough.

There is no problem with ruling over the Arab neighborhoods, because Israel can win the demographic battle, according to the Likud reasoning.

"Hundreds of thousands of Israelis will move to Jerusalem and many Jews should come [from abroad]," says Likud communications minister Reuven Rivlin. By annexing Jewish areas to the east and west of the current boundaries, the government can establish an 80 percent to 20 percent Jewish majority, he says. The current ratio is about 67 percent to 33 percent, with the percentage of Jews falling annually.

Along with Orient House, eight other Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem were shut down, including the tourism council and the chamber of commerce.

Built in 1897, Orient House - with its striking colonnades and lovely verandas - is situated in the heart of an area that is still entirely Palestinian. It took on heightened political significance in 1991, when it served as the headquarters of Palestinian negotiators after the launch of the peace process.

In subsequent years, Faisal Husseini, who was to become Israel's main interlocutor on Jerusalem matters, raised its profile further by receiving foreign dignitaries and heads of state there.

Israeli Labor Party governments viewed Husseini as a peace partner and generally looked the other way, while Likud politicians charged that Orient House's activities were violating a ban on Palestinian Authority (PA) activity in Jerusalem.

Orient House offered a gamut of services to Palestinian civilians in the city including loans, conflict resolution and legal assistance. Husseini, respected as much for his aristocratic heritage as his position on the PLO executive committee, died two months ago, leaving no obvious successor for the institution.

One of its departments mapped Israeli settlement expansion in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip, and it kept records of all Palestinian property in East Jerusalem.

In recent years, it had started to amass records of Palestinian property ownership in neighborhoods of West Jerusalem that were captured by Jewish forces in 1948.

For some Palestinians, Orient House was the only hope for ever being compensated for their former property.

Police yesterday were "checking" the archives they had seized from Orient House, Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau said. Orient House staffers said the Israeli forces simply trucked away the documents, without giving any receipts for them.

Zuheira Kamal, a veteran moderate Palestinian activist said: "Perhaps this step will awaken us from a dream, the dream of peace, negotiations and agreements. They are telling us you are still under occupation. So we now have to discuss among ourselves where this leaves us."

Heavy setback to conciliation

For Israel, however, the policy is completely clear.

"We are not closing our eyes anymore," says Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin, from Likud. "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and there is only one sovereignty here."

Palestinian leaders over the weekend called for international intervention. The seizure, they said, was a direct violation of a commitment undertaken by the Israeli government in 1993 not to tamper with the status quo regarding Palestinian institutions until agreement is reached between the two sides on the permanent status of Jerusalem.

"As far as I can tell, taking over Orient House is a message to us, the Palestinian people - not the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, but the ordinary Palestinian hoping for peace," says Sari Nusseibeh, president of al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "The message says look at the place that gave birth to the peace process. It is closed, with soldiers all around, and the Israeli flag flying. It's telling us, 'Goodbye to peace and the negotiations.' "

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