News reports concerning the Israeli takeover of the PLO Orient House in Jerusalem focused on the Orient House as little more than a symbol of PLO presence in Jerusalem, and as a place where the PLO welcomed foreign dignitaries.
However, having covered the Orient House for the past seven years, and having conducted extensive interviews with the Orient House staff over the past year, an insider’s view of the Orient House would not underestimate the operational significance of the Orient House to the PLO.
Each department of the Orient House carried tremendous security implications for Israel.
The Orient House was a hub of PLO activity throughout the past seven years of the Oslo process and especially over the past ten months, when various armed forces of the PLO made it their venue for meeting. Reporters visiting the Orient House witnessed daylight meetings of the Tanzim, the Fatah hawks, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. It was not unusual to witness them brandishing their weapons. These varying security services were not only involved in war with Israel. They were all involved in “law enforcement” in East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods, which often meant abductions of Arabs from their homes for questioning and detention in Ramallah.
Last August, 2000, I interviewed with Khalil Tafakji, the Director of the Arab Studies Society, the director of a project based at the Orient House whose task it was to computerize the land records of Jerusalem and its environs, cross-referencing property records with the ownership claims of the refugees. By the time that the project was completed in January, 2001, the PA had computerized records that show the present owner or user of each parcel of land in Jerusalem and the Arab owner of each parcel prior to 1948. Tafakji explained that the purpose of the project was to prepare a legal claims for return of the properties or claims for damages for the value of the properties. In February, 2001, Tafakji pioneered similar projects on the computer at Orient House that traced land ownership in all other parts of Israel, with regard to properties to which Arab refugees can now make claims.
The Orient House computer was not only emphasizing the technical legal property claims for Arabs to receive compensation for their loss. The Orient House computer became a most efficient vehicle for Arab refugees to prepare for their actual return, even if the property that they had left had since been developed as an Israeli neighborhood, kibbutz, moshav or woodland since 1948.
This became very real to me when Tafakji casually pointed out familiar streets in Jerusalem on the computer screen, and then clicked to the names of the residents on those same streets from 1947, and then clicked to the whereabouts of those same residents and their descendents in the UNRWA Arab refugee camps today, where they have wallowed since 1949.
Since Arab refugee families in the UNRWA-run Palestinian Arab refugee camps live in areas that are marked according to the precise neighborhoods and villages that they lived in 1948, the Orient House mega-computer, working with UNRWA, efficiently distributed computer print outs to UNRWA refugee camp residents, so that they can realize their “right of return” to the neighborhoods and villages from before 1948.
In September, 2000, I accompanied a BBC TV crew that reported the daily bus trips for UNRWA camp residents to see the homes and neighborhoods that they will soon be claiming for themselves, in places such as Canada Park, the Tel Aviv University campus, and Ben Gurion International Airport.
The officials at the PA legal services department at the Orient house explained that this was similar to that of the Jewish claims against Germany, Austria and countries to which Jewish assets were sold or transferred by the Germans and their allies. It was also similar to the claims against Switzerland and other countries that benefited from the deaths of Jewish property owners whose assets were confiscated after their deaths at the hands of the Nazis.
The Arab Refugee Affairs Department at the Orient House, run PLO official Daoud Barakat, made it quite clear that that the “our task at the Orient House is to mobilize Palestinians from around the world to return to their homes”.
Barakat did not mince words about the Jews who had moved into areas that had been Arab before 1948: “They will simply have to leave”, Barakat explained in a taped interview. “Then the rightful owners of their homes would force them to leave”, he said, referring to areas taken by Israel in 1948, not in 1967.
The most cooperative and media-conscious PLO official at the Orient House was Mr. Nabeh Aweidah, the Orient House press office manager. One of Aweidah’s most important tasks was to print up and to distribute thousands of maps which conveyed the PLO vision of a Palestinian state in the future, in which all Israeli settlements that were established since 1948 were eliminated, and in which Palestine comprises all of the land of Palestine, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.
A few months ago, our agency dispatched a TV crew to film the Orient House in action – the security services, their mega computer, their lawyers and their map department. The raw footage will be available for the press and public to judge for itself as to whether the Orient House was only an innocuous welcome mat for the PLO cause.