The Orient House, a grand estate built in the Bab a-Zahara neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem in the 19th century, has been empty for more than 17 years.
Two days after the deadly suicide bombing at the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem during the Second Intifada on Aug. 11, 2001, police special forces rappelled down from a helicopter and raided the building, which was being used as the PLO and Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Jerusalem. The occupants were arrested and interrogated. Tens of thousands of documents were confiscated and the offices were padlocked.
The villa, which would become a Palestinian national symbol in Jerusalem, is now locked and barricaded. For years, orders to keep the Orient House closed have been reissued every six months. The last such order was signed a few days ago and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan extended it to include other Palestinian institutions that operate in Jerusalem. But the quiet at the Orient House is deceptive.
Only a few weeks ago, Israel arrested 32 members of the Palestinian Authority security services, including Adnan Ghaith, who is called “the governor of Jerusalem.” The reason for the arrests: activity of governance in east Jerusalem, which is illegal under a 1994 law which bars the P.A. from any governmental activity anywhere in the city.
The arrests came after Jerusalem resident Issam Akel was arrested by P.A. authorities. Akel, who is also an American citizen, was suspected of helping transfer property in the Old City to Jewish purchasers, an unforgivable sin in Palestinian society. He was tried in Ramallah and a P.A. court sentenced him to life in prison and hard labor. A few weeks ago, with U.S. intervention, Akel was released.
In Akel’s case, Israel did not make do with arrests. “Governor” Ghaith, a resident of Silwan, who Israel believes has taken part in the P.A.’s arrests of Palestinian residents of Israel, has had his movements restricted. He is not allowed to enter Judea and Samaria, including territory under P.A. control. Ghaith has also been prohibited from meeting with Majid Faraj, head of the Palestinian General Security Service, a darling of the Israeli security establishment and one of the architects of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on security matters. The security establishment has also barred the P.A.’s Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Adnan al-Husseini from traveling abroad. Al-Husseini has also been fingered as a part of the P.A.’s “government activity” in the capital against Palestinians who sell land to Jews.
The ‘Jerusalem Unit’
But the Ghaith affair and Akel’s arrest in Ramallah are turning out to be only the tip of the iceberg of the PA and other foreign organizations’ activity in Jerusalem. Israel is gradually lifting the lid on what is going on in the eastern part of the city and the pact of silence about that activity appears to be breaking down.
Dr. David Koren, a researcher with the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security who served as an adviser to former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat on east Jerusalem issues, has discovered that the P.A. invests 64 million shekels ($18 million) in activity in eastern Jerusalem. Six million shekels ($2 million) goes to activity by “Governor” Ghaith and another 58 million shekels ($16 million) to al-Husseini’s work.
The budget for the office of the governor includes support for tsumud (“retaining land”) and “remaining steadfast in the face of the crimes of the Israeli occupation,” as well as “oversight of illegal weapons,” an actual act of governance in light of the fact that thousands of weapons are owned without licenses or permits by residents of the eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Another item in the governor’s budget is “hosting foreign delegations,” another official diplomatic governmental act. The budget also covers aid to Palestinian refugees, families of security prisoners and terrorist martyrs, to the community and to women who want to enter the workforce.
In a paper for the JISS, Koren reveals some of the heaviest expenditures of the minister’s office, to whom the governor answers. These include support for institutions in Jerusalem that are linked to the P.A., many of which Israel has repeatedly tried to shut down; legal and financial aid to Palestinians who built homes illegally that are in danger of being demolished; financial aid for tradesmen; and funding for cultural, social and sports activities. But Israel frequently discovers that the P.A. starts investing in the community as a response to Israeli attempts to expand services to Arab neighborhoods.
The P.A., Koren explains, has made it a goal to control as many aspects of the lives of the residents of east Jerusalem as possible. It actively seeks out donations, both from international entities like the EU and from Arab countries. That activity, Israel Hayom is the first to report, is mainly concentrated in the hands of the Jerusalem Unit in PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s office. The Jerusalem Unit works with the P.A.’s Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and the office of Governor Ghaith.
A green warning light
The P.A. budget might be small compared to the Israeli budget—over the past few years, Israel has invested hundreds of millions of shekels in roads, cleaning, education, welfare, leisure and sports in eastern Jerusalem—but while the Israeli money is focused on providing municipal services, the Palestinians are investing in political consciousness.
Fatah is busy in the east of the city and operates several sports clubs there. One of the most prominent is the Mount of Olives club, based in the A-Tur neighborhood, where it is vying with the city-run neighborhood administration for the hearts of the local youth. Fatah has integrated its people in PTAs and on community boards and is behind both rioting and the organization of marches to commemorate Palestinian events and holidays.
Koren’s report for the JISS reveals how the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement under Sheikh Raed Salah (who spent years stirring up trouble on the Temple Mount until his organization was outlawed in 2015) gets around the ban against it. The group has been replaced by a nonprofit organization called “The Islamic Nation’s Waqf for Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa,” which operates out of Turkey. The Islamic Nation’s Waqf seeks donations from governments, organizations and businesspeople. The group locates bank accounts into which the donations can safely be deposited and then invests the money in projects in Jerusalem, mainly at the Al-Aqsa compound and Muslim Quarter of the Old City. In effect, it is another Turkish arm that is reaching into the Old City and the Temple Mount.
The Turkish activity is prompting countermeasures by Jordan and Morocco. Just last week, residents of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, who regularly park in the quarter’s main parking lot, were amazed to see green lights flashing from the tower of a mosque at the edge of the quarter that has been abandoned for years. When Lt. Col. (res.) Baruch Yedid (a former adviser to the IDF’s Central Command on Arab issues) looked into the matter, it turned out that for months the Jordanian Waqf had secretly been renovating the mosque. The Al-Quds Committee, headed by King of Morocco Mohammed VI, helped the project. The project seeks to renovate and reopen six more defunct mosques in Jerusalem.
The newly renovated mosque, which lies flush on the border of the Jewish Quarter, is known as the Disi Mosque or the Olive Oil Mosque. Yedid explains that the mosque’s adjacency to the Armenian Quarter caused concern in Jordan that Turkey, which has already refurbished more than 100 buildings in the Old City, including mosques, would wind up wresting another Waqf property from Jordan’s hands.
The Al-Quds Committee, Yedid recently wrote on his Arab affairs blog, is also working to renovate a giant historical building in the Muslim Quarter, not far from the Temple Mount, known as Beit Morocco. This, too, he says, appears to be part of a battle against Turkey forcing its way into the Old City.
Saudi Arabia close to the Mount
The Koren report maps out the various foreign players who have a finger in the east Jerusalem pie. Many of them challenge Israeli sovereignty in the capital. Other than the activity by the P.A. and the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement, he details Hamas’s strong grip on neighborhoods in southeast Jerusalem: Zur Baher, Umm Tuba, Jabal Mukaber and Umm Lisun. In Jabal Mukaber, for example, there is an influential PTA, some of whose members were senior Hamas officials recently released from prison in Israel.
In eastern Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount and the Muslim Quarter, in particular, Hizb ut-Tahrir (“The Party of Liberation”) is active. Hizb ut-Tahrir has already been outlawed by European countries, but Israel has thus far refrained from doing the same. Ideologically, it is a twin of Islamic State, a fundamentalist Islamist movement that aspires to eradicate political structures and establish international Islamic caliphates in their place.
But unlike ISIS, Hizb ut-Tahrir operates through dawa, the concept of strengthening religious faith by persuasion and preaching rather than by violent jihad. However, the organization runs “modesty patrols” in the east of the city and has acquired influence in a few mosques in the Beit Zafafa and Beit Hanina neighborhoods.
Besides the Turkish activity, which has been extensively reported in Israel Hayom, the report unveils growing attempts by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to strengthen their hold in eastern Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia recently donated $150 million to various projects in eastern Jerusalem and, with the UAE, has even purchased property in the Old City, near the Temple Mount.
Another foreign actor that is investing vast sums in the capital is the European Union.
“The E.U. is involved in funding political NGOs identified with the left wing of the Israeli political map,” Koren tells Israel Hayom.
The E.U. funding goes to support position papers and execute projects in two main areas: questioning Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem while tarnishing Israel and the Jerusalem Municipality in international public opinion; and promoting civil projects for the benefit of Palestinian residents of the city, while battling Israeli authorities on their behalf.
E.U. involvement is particularly noticeable in the planning and construction field, in the form of legal advice to families and organizations that are facing trial for building illegal homes. But the E.U. also helps businesses; it is trying to reopen the Palestinian Board of Trade, which Israel closed down. The board of trade is now asking to re-launch as the P.A.’s business branch in Jerusalem.
Koren, who currently directs the Education Ministry’s five-point strategic plan for east Jerusalem, describes how Fatah operatives put heavy pressure on parents who register their children in schools that offer the Israeli curriculum, hoping to keep them on the Palestinian matriculation track. He says the P.A. is also sowing disinformation about the confiscation of land for projects meant to benefit the Arab population, such as paving roads. These steps by Israel are misrepresented as attempts to steal the Palestinians’ land from them.
Koren also discusses the physical assaults and violent discourse that the P.A. and its envoys employ against leaders of Arab neighborhoods who don’t even identify as pro-Zionist, but who work with the Israeli authorities to improve the residents’ quality of life.
A short hop to Syria
About two weeks ago, police raided Al-Makassed Islamic Charitable Society Hospital in A-Tur. They were informed that a ceremony hosted by the P.A.to mark the hospital’s 50th anniversary would be taking place and that Governor Ghaith and al-Husseini would both be participating.
Last weekend, police learned that Shadi al-Matour, identified as one of the leaders of Fatah in Jerusalem, had gone to Syria with a delegation on behalf of Abbas to discuss the matter of Syrian refugees. The police wanted to arrest al-Matour so they could question him as an Israeli citizen who entered an enemy state and was suspected of contact with an enemy agent. Jerusalem Magistrates’ Court Judge Daniel Dembitz ordered his release, but the police do not intend to give up and have appealed the decision.
“Overall, we can say that the P.A. is working assiduously, aggressively and violently to prevent the Arab residents of Jerusalem from acting like residents who implement their rights under the Israeli authorities,” says Koren.
“The P.A. is unceasingly undermining the foundations of Jerusalem’s unification and seeking to create a de facto division of the city, in which the Arab residents are linked more strongly to Ramallah than to Jerusalem,” he says.
Koren suggests establishing an interministerial committee that will work with everyone involved. It would take action to eradicate illegal activity by the P.A. and other foreign entities with particular emphasis on the financial side. He suggests amending the Implementation Law to constrain the steps the P.A. is taking in Jerusalem, and in particular, setting up a good Israeli alternative for the civil services that the foreign groups currently offer eastern Jerusalem residents.
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.