US presses Israel to reopen office of Palestinian official Nusseibeh

After an unusually strong rebuke from the United States, some Israeli officials said Thursday it was politically unwise to have shut down the offices of Al-Quds University president Sari Nusseibeh.

Police shut the office on Tuesday citing Nusseibeh's illegal ties with the Palestinian Authority.

Minister Matan Vilnai said Thursday he was sure the Palestinians were conducting political activity out of Al-Quds.

However, said Vilnai, Nusseibeh is also "one of the Palestinian leaders with whom it will apparently be possible to talk when the era of Arafat ends," Vilnai said. "And maybe it was not wise to raid his offices at the university."

Transport Minister Ephraim Sneh said the closure may have been legal, but it was "foolish and misguided from a political point of view."

Internal Security Minister Uzi Landau, who is in charge of the police, defended the raid, saying the university was "the long arm of the Palestinian Authority for the purpose of undermining Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem."

The United States condemned Israel's decision to close the Jerusalem offices of Al-Quds University president and Palestinian Authority Jerusalem representative Sari Nusseibeh.

Transportation Minister and Labor MK Ephraim Sneh denounced the move, calling it a "mournful and foolish," political decision. Harming Nusseibeh, said Sneh, "broadcasts the message that we are not interested in strengthening the moderates but in weakening them." He said he would raise the matter in the next cabinet meeting.

According to reports, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit said early yesterday afternoon that he also opposed the move, and added there had been no cabinet discussion about the closing of the university administration building.

"The decision to attack those few who are moderate was part stupidity and part lunacy," railed Labor MK and Knesset House Committee chairman Yossi Katz. "We have enough wretchedness these days, but it appears that someone is trying to destroy any potential understanding between Israelis and Palestinians by targeting Nusseibeh."

Like the others, Katz noted the legality of the police's action but added, "With regard to such sensitive issues, it is imperative not only to be right, but to be smart as well."

The criticism was not only internal. Just hours after Jerusalem police entered the Al-Quds administration building, US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chief of staff, Dov Weinglass, expressing American bewilderment at the action, which was authorized by Interior Minister Uzi Landau.

Nusseibeh's office released a statement last night noting the "wide international protest on the decision of the Israeli government to shut the down the Al-Quds administration building." The statement added that the US government, the British government, and Arab and Israeli academicians all over the world have questioned the prudence of shutting down Nusseibeh's office at a time when Nusseibeh' voice could be used to calm rather than aggravate the conflict.

In the police order, Landau charged that Nusseibeh was conducting illegal activities in his office, which doubled as a branch of the PA. The internal security minister said the university is part of the "long arm of the Palestinian Authority, operating against the law." According to Israeli law, no PA representative office may operate in Israel.

Landau stood by his decision, saying: "Finally, after years of concessions and capitulation by previous governments in Israel, which allowed the Palestinian Authority to operate in Jerusalem, we are now implementing Israeli law."

Landau's action, predicated on the "Law for the Implementation of the Oslo Agreements," comes a day after the cabinet nearly voted to annul the Oslo Accords.

According to Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information director Gershon Baskin, who has worked closely with Nusseibeh, the Knesset enacted the Implementation of the Oslo Accords Law to create the PA, but also to prevent the PA from working in Jerusalem.

Katz viewed the closing of the Al-Quds administrative offices as a political effort to completely disconnect the PA from Jerusalem.

"I just hope," added Katz, "the continued mistakes will not blow up in our faces." In addition to the closure, on which Landau put no time limit, the police and the Shin Bet confiscated of all of the books, papers, and equipment from Nusseibeh's office, including his personal papers.

Nussiebeh is one of the main proponents of a Palestinian civil society and at the time of the closure was meeting in Greece with peace activists from Israel.

On Wednesday in Washington, the White House said it was troubled by the closure and said it was discussing the matter with the Israelis, indicating it would press the government to reverse the decision.

"This action does not contribute to the fight against terror" nor promote the reform the United States wants to see in the Palestinian Authority, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in a statement.

Nusseibeh said Wednesday he would appeal the closure. "I know the order is invalid, I don't think it will stand up in court," he said.

Last month Nusseibeh initiated an appeal to the Palestinian people that appeared in the Al-Quds daily, calling on them to stop suicide bombings because they harm Palestinian national interests.

The article, first published the day after a suicide bomber killed 18 people near Jerusalem's Beit Safafa neighborhood, was the first of several such appeals each more diluted in language than the first.

In the past, Nusseibeh earned the respect of many Israelis, and the wrath of Palestinians, when he urged Palestinians to scrap their demands of a return of refugees in a final status agreement.

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