Israeli flag flies over Palestinians' peace symbol

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The Independent Online

When the Israeli army stormed into Orient House in the early hours of Friday and raised the Israeli flag on the roof of the venerable old mansion that had once belonged to Faisal Husseini, they did more than take away Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the holy city of Jerusalem. They moved into the very symbol of the original "peace process", the building from which the Palestinians set out to the 1991 Madrid peace conference.

Inside, the Israelis found filing cabinets of documents and maps, the very archives of the "final status" negotiations that were supposed to bring eternal peace to the Middle East. A Palestinian dream thus died on Friday morning.

Yet Israel's Prime Minister could count his retaliation as a public relations success. If Israelis expected a more bloody revenge for the wicked suicide bombing in west Jerusalem on Thursday, Ariel Sharon could at least claim that not a soul died in the night.

The Israeli tanks which crept into Palestinian territory in Gaza killed no one and the F-16s which attacked the Palestinian police headquarters in the centre of Ramallah took no lives. The Palestinians had anyway not been stupid enough to sleep in such a target. The storming of Orient House – and other Palestinian institutions in and around Jerusalem – was accomplished without a single death.

But what purpose it achieved – save for the quenching of Israeli anger – is difficult to grasp. It seems a little strange, after all, for Mr Sharon and President Bush to have spent hours after the massacre demanding that Arafat use his police to arrest Hamas and Islamic Jihad bombers and then to have destroyed the police station from which Mr Arafat's men would have to set off on their arrest missions. Asking for Palestinian police action and then bombing their headquarters is a policy that may need further explanation.

The village of Abu Dis – which may or may not have been destined as the site of Mr Arafat's Palestinian parliament, perhaps even his executive headquarters – was under curfew yesterday and journalists were ordered out under the usual ploy of claiming that it was a "closed military area". But the taking of Orient House was a far more serious matter. The Palestinian Authority angrily denounced the seizure, adding that the Israelis had "disregarded all the understandings and agreements reached on the eve of the (1991) Madrid peace conference".

Eight Palestinians were initially arrested in the building, the authority said, and "all files relating to the (peace) negotiations, along with other confidential documents" were taken. The Israelis also reportedly removed the portrait of Faisal Husseini, the veteran – and Hebrew-speaking – Palestinian negotiator who had many Israeli friends and whose wife's family once owned Orient House. Mr Husseini was buried in Jerusalem only last month. During the day yesterday, European and American peace demonstrators, including Christians, Jews and Muslims, held Palestinian flags at the end of the road leading to Orient House, only to be pushed and manhandled off the road by Israeli mounted police.

A young British woman briefly arrested and taken behind police barriers described to The Independent how she had seen two Palestinian protesters brutally beaten by two Israeli policemen.

"They beat them with batons on the spleen and liver," Angela Zelter said. "One of the policemen pushed his fingers into the eyes of one of the prisoners."

The Israeli government spokesman, Dore Gold, claimed that the night's action had "clarified to Mr Arafat that he will not move forward with his political goals by using violence" – a faithful representation of remarks made earlier by Mr Sharon.

But outside Orient House yesterday, Sari Nusseibeh, the president of the Al-Quds University in Abu Dis and a former peace negotiations official, took a different view.

"It's a message to us and to the people of Palestine who have been living in the hope of reaching peace," he said. "Orient House is the place where the entire peace process was given birth and it has been taken from us. The Israeli flag flies over it. Israelis soldiers are inside it. What does this tell us? It is goodbye to peace, goodbye to negotiations."