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MIDDLE EAST : The Palestinian 'Government' Calls It Home : New Orient House, a historic East Jerusalem mansion, serves as the political headquarters for the leaders of a state that doesn't exist.

January 22, 1993|MICHAEL PARKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — The lights in the elegant reception rooms flicker on and off, the press center has enough dirt on the floor to grow potatoes as it awaits new tiles and the telephone connections are often scratchy.

But New Orient House at 8 Abu Obeidah St. in East Jerusalem is now functioning as the political headquarters of the Palestinian leadership in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip--a development that for many symbolizes their nation's coming of age.

"People call it 'Government House' for a government we don't yet have in a state we don't yet have," Hanan Ashrawi, spokeswoman for the Palestinian delegation to the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations, said while waiting in the building's newly painted lobby for a group of Israeli politicians. "So, Orient House symbolizes our aspirations and our determination."

Built in 1897 as the home of Ismail Musa Husseini, a local Arab businessman and political leader, New Orient House hosted the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm, on a 1900 visit to Jerusalem, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie when he was in exile during the 1930s, the U.N. Conciliation Commission after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and then the U.N. refugee agency for Palestinians. For part of that time, beginning in the 1950s, it was a hotel.

"Don't you feel the history?" Ashrawi asked. "This house has seen so much."

The reopening last summer of the Ottoman-era mansion, closed for more than four years by Israeli authorities on unspecified "security grounds," and its transformation into a focal point of Palestinian politics reflect as well the progress made toward the Palestinians' goal of self-determination.

"In having such a headquarters here in Arab East Jerusalem, we are telling the world this is where the Palestinians are, this is where our leadership is and this is where you can talk with us," said Akram Baker, press officer at New Orient House. "Having our own house like this is a step, albeit a small one, toward having our own state."

Signaling their support for the Palestinians and seeking to encourage them to remain in the negotiations with Israel, foreign leaders and diplomats are coming to call at New Orient House in steady succession as they visit Jerusalem.

The first was Portuguese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva, and since then have come the foreign ministers of Poland, France, Belgium and Sweden, all to meet with Faisal Husseini, the head of the delegation to the peace talks, and other Palestinian leaders. Among the next could be Warren Christopher, the new U.S. secretary of state.

"For years, there was a question of where to meet when a foreign dignitary wanted to talk with us," Baker recounted. "Sometimes it was at his consulate, sometimes at the American Colony Hotel, sometimes at another place, but always there was a question that gave the impression of not only being an uprooted but a disorganized people.

"When the Portuguese said in October they would come if we could get it together, it was really a political challenge. . . . How can we run a state, you might ask, if we can't organize a set of reception rooms? How were we going to build a government if we couldn't establish offices for our negotiators?"

For three weeks, from 6 a.m. to midnight, Palestinians--local contractors, New Orient House staff and volunteers--worked to renovate the building and convert it into a graceful but useful office complex equipped with computers and modern communications equipment.

New Orient House is now the headquarters of the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks and of the network of extensive political and technical committees advising it. The building is also the home of the Arab Studies Society, a Palestinian think tank headed by Husseini.

Staffed by nearly 50 people plus 30 security men, mostly former members of the Israeli police, the building bustles with activity. "This place is big, and even while we are finishing, we can see we still won't have enough room," Baker said. "Scheduling the meetings we have each day is a full-time job.

"All sorts of people visit every day, not just foreign dignitaries or local politicians," Baker said. "We get people wanting advice or arbitration of land disputes, family quarrels and business deals. People come to Faisal (Husseini) with their problems, and we feel we must help them. . . . In that way, we fulfill both a traditional and a modern political role."

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