Orient House

A highly symbolic place and cornerstone of the political presence of the Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

Built in 1897 – at a time when Zionism was being created as a political project and when Jewish immigration to Palestine was developing considerably – this residence continues to be the property of the Husseini’s, one of the main families of the Palestinian aristocracy of Jerusalem. It has welcomed important visitors such as Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1900, the Negus of Ethiopia Haile Selassie in 1936 as well as King Abdallah, King Hussein of Jordan’s grandfather. Its last owner was Faisal Husseini (who died in May 2001) an emblematic figure in the PLO in terms of the Palestinian claim on Jerusalem. Operating as a nerve centre, Orient House also accommodates the different departments of the Arab Studies Society – under which name it functions officially – created in 1979 by Faisal Husseini.

Orient House has been closed on several occasions by the Israeli authorities, notably from 1988 to 1992 by order of Yitzhak Rabin, then Defence Minister. An Israeli law voted in December 1994 banned the PLO from any political activity in East Jerusalem without the agreement of the Israeli government. However, Israel has also committed itself in secret to a policy of non-interference with the activities of Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem, although this has not stopped them from regularly threatening Orient House with closure. As for the Palestinians, they invoke the Declaration of Principles (Oslo Agreement) of September 1993 (see « Oslo peace process ») which stipulated that Palestinian institutions established in Jerusalem before this agreement was signed could continue their activities.

As the PLO’s unofficial representation in East Jerusalem, Orient House is the place where foreign personalities passing through the city are welcomed. Successive European Troikas as well as European Foreign Ministers, in their individual capacities, have always made it a point of honour – unlike the American Secretary of State – to visit Orient House when they are in Jerusalem, although the Israeli authorities do everything in their power to prevent these visits. During the French President Jacques Chirac’s tour of the Middle East in October 1996 of, his Foreign Minister preferred not to accompany him during this stage of the visit rather than to break with protocol because of the obstacles put in place by the Israelis. It was finally the French State Secretary for Health who visited Orient House. More recently, the Israeli authorities put pressure on Klaus Hänsch, visiting in November 1996 in his capacity as President of the European Parliament, not to go there. Also in November 1996, the Troika passing through Tel-Aviv on its way to the Palestinian territories, confronted with the same obstacles, refused to meet Mr Netanyahu and Mr Levy and made their transit through Israel into a purely technical stop-over.

Following a particularly murderous suicide attack perpetrated in June 2000 in Tel Aviv by a member of the palestinioan islamic Jihad, the Israeli government decided to occupy Orient House and to expel its residents.

Following Faisal Husseini’s death in May 2001, Yasser Arafat put Sari Nusseibeh in charge of Jerusalem issues. Mr. Nusseibeh is thus now the Palestinian Authority’s point of contact in Jerusalem for foreign diplomats and visitors.