Opening doors to the past and the future: Palestinians suspect Israeli motives in allowing the Arab Studies Centre to reopen in east Jerusalem, writes Sarah Helm

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The Independent Online
YITZHAK RABIN had forgotten to give back the keys, but nobody was complaining. The grand doors of the Orient Hotel, owned by the Husseini family of east Jerusalem, and home to the Arab Studies Centre, were opened with blowtorches as the Israeli authorities looked on.

Mr Rabin had also forgotten to clean up. But again nobody was complaining - yet. Out in the sunlight, under the imposing arabesque facade, rows of warped volumes - The Peace Protest and Intercommunal Strife, Occupied Arab Land, Letter on Steadfastness - were being carefully dusted off and checked against a catalogue.

Arab newspapers, stacked high and encrusted with grime, were being sifted. 'Speakers call for a Palestinian state as five martyrs are buried', said the headline in an-Nahar of 30 July 1988.

On 31 July 1988, Mr Rabin's soldiers had moved in and closed the Centre, stopping the clock in the midst of the intifada.

'It may only be four years but it seems like a long time ago,' said Ishaq Budeiri, secretary-general of the Centre. 'Personally my impression on entering was how much has changed. We hope we are now entering a new era,' he said, passing a 1987 map of Jewish settlements, which seemed curiously bare, and a poster of Akram Haniyeh, a Palestinian deportee in 1988 who is now co-ordinating the peace strategy of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Tunis.

The Arab Study Centre was founded by Faisal al-Husseini in 1980 as a research body for Palestinians. In the mid-80s it was suspected by Israel of housing a 'terrorist cell'. Mr Husseini and other Palestinian leaders ran their 'Iron Fist Committee Against the Israelis' from the Centre. It was the 'iron fist' policy of Mr Rabin, then Defence Minister, which the Committee opposed.

Also on the night of 31 July, Mr Husseini was arrested on the orders of Mr Rabin. The building was surrounded by soldiers who searched for subversive material.

Perhaps old land deeds of the British Mandate might have given Israelis pause for thought. But there was one item specifically which clearly sparked Mr Rabin's interest - for he kept it: the original draft of the Palestinian 'Declaration of Independence'. The draft was drawn up in the Centre, several months before the PLO made its public declaration of independence in November 1988.

'We will be asking for that back, along with other missing files. And we will be asking for compensation,' said Mr Budeiri, who puts the damage to the building and its computers at about dollars 500,000 ( pounds 262,000).

Since the closure, the order has been renewed each year, until this week. 'They didn't tell us we could re-open it - they just didn't tell us we couldn't' Perhaps Mr Rabin, newly elected Prime Minister and proponent of peace, is just demonstrating his new approach. Or perhaps his intentions are more complex.

The Palestinian peace delegation, with Mr Husseini now its de facto leader, is in desperate need of an office. It is under-resourced and is running one of the most complex negotiations in modern history from Mr Husseini's dining-room. But the PLO in Tunis has said no to a Jerusalem office, wishing to block any chance that local Palestinian leaders develop an authority to counter its own.

Mr Rabin, meanwhile, who now wants to be friends with Mr Husseini, sees advantages in building up the authority of the local leadership as a counter to Tunis. By giving them back the Orient Hotel building, local Palestinians suspect, Mr Rabin may be nudging their leaders to take on new status by making the building the official seat of the peace delegation.

If this happens - and Mr Husseini has yet to decide - the building could in future become the official seat of the Palestinian interim autonomous authority. And - who knows - one day it could be the official seat of the Palestinian state government.

BEIRUT - Russia and the United States have proposed that Middle East peace talks resume on 24 August in Washington, a Russian Foreign Ministry official said yesterday. Invitations have been sent to Arab nations, Israel and the PLO, AFP reports.