Israelis may regret Orient House grab amid scepticism over 'terrorism' charge

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Even Israelis are beginning to wonder what on earth Ariel Sharon's soldiers are doing in Orient House. As a bloodless retaliation for the crime of last week's Palestinian suicide bomber who murdered 15 Israelis, and as a way of tweaking Yasser Arafat's ever-greying moustache, storming the Palestinian offices must have seemed a bright idea. No bodies, no wounded children, no world outcry; just the Israeli Star of David banner fluttering in the summer breeze over the 19th-century Jerusalem building with its pitched roof and delicate tracery windows.

But its seizure, as with all Israeli occupations, seems likely to produce a crisis, this time bringing the Palestinian intifada into the streets of east Jerusalem on an unprecedented scale. Palestinians in the Old City and Mr Arafat's own officials are planning a large demonstration to recover the building tomorrow, possibly co-operating with Israeli "Peace Now" activists. With or without them, the chances of a violent confrontation between protest-ers and the increasingly brutal Israeli police around Orient House are very high.

A Palestinian call for a general strike "across the Arab world" today is part of the usual Arafat rhetoric bath. There may well be a symbolic closure of business around the Middle East ­ Arabs are certainly outraged at Israel's behaviour ­ but Arab "unity" hasn't existed since the Ottoman Empire and the far-flung merchants of Algiers and the United Arab Emirates are not keen to be economic "martyrs". If anything, it is Israel's own preposterous claims about Orient House that are inflaming Israelis and Arabs alike.

After years of bellyaching every time Western diplomats met Palestinian officials in the building, the Israelis followed the occupation last week by stating that the office had been an "incitement" to violence.

Then yesterday Dore Gold, the government's official spokesman, made the extraordinary assertion that the venerable mansion had been "a virtual hub and nerve centre of terrorists". What on earth was he talking about?

Even Mr Gold's revealing insertion of the word "virtual" did not fool Israelis who asked, not unreasonably, why, if Orient House was such a "terror centre", it had not been raided, trashed, closed down, occupied or destroyed years ago. "We can hunt down their terrorists in the back streets of Ramallah but we didn't know until now that terrorist HQ was just a stone's throw from Shabbak [Israeli secret service] offices," an Israeli journalist told me. "What are we supposed to believe next?"

Indeed, if Mr Gold is to be believed, Israel's policemen, who have stood outside Orient House for eight years, must have been breathtakingly inefficient to have allowed all those "terrorists" to pop in and out of the building to set up their "nerve centre" for almost a decade. The headquarters of the Shin Bet security services in the Russian Compound of Jerusalem, stands 1,100 yards from Orient House. A Peace Now activist asked: "Whoever heard of taking over archives?"

The aftermath of last week's atrocity has proved almost as odd as it was tragic. Only hours after Israelis watched, in a mood of national tragedy, the burial of 14 of the innocent civilian victims of the Palestinian bomber, they learnt that one of the two bombs dropped by F-16 jets on the Palestinian police headquarters in Ramallah failed to explode.

Anxious to avoid casualties, the Israeli authorities desperately called up the Palestinian Authority to warn them of the unexploded ordnance buried in the rubble of the building. They were even more worried when they realised that Mr Arafat ­ "the head of a gang of terrorists," according to Mr Sharon ­ was going to visit the wreckage. Assassinating the occasional Hamas member may now be par for the course, but not the liquidation of Mr Arafat himself. Not yet, at any rate.

Then word came that Mr Arafat's head of "Preventative Security", Jibril Rajoub, had arrested four Hamas "militants". It transpired that one of them, Hussein Abu Naaseh, had originally been named by Islamic Jihad as Thursday's suicide bomber. In a sinister mistake, his "martyr's" photograph was released by the organisation before it realised that the real bomber, Izzadin Masri, was from Hamas. It didn't take long, thanks to Islamic Jihad, for both the Israelis and Mr Arafat to realise that Abu Naaseh was a "ticking bomb" and he was swiftly picked up by Mr Rajoub's plainclothes flics.

But what did the Israelis find inside Orient House? An Israeli-made Uzi rifle, according to the press here ­ it may have been legally held by Mr Arafat's men ­ and a clutch of photographs of the very Israeli policemen who have been guarding Orient House over the years. Since the Israelis have regularly taken pictures of everyone moving in and out of the building, it must have been an eerie experience for the intelligence photographers to find that the Palestinians had been doing the same to them. Exactly why remains a mystery.