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Biden backs Palestinian state, calls for accounting of journalist’s death

While in the West Bank on July 15, President Biden called for a "full accounting" of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. (Video: The Washington Post)
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JERUSALEM — President Biden devoted the last hours of his Israeli visit to restoring the ties with Palestinians severed by his predecessor, visiting a Palestinian hospital Friday in East Jerusalem and crossing an Israeli military checkpoint to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

The president called for a full accounting of the May killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh during an Israeli raid in the West Bank, the first time he has publicly mentioned the incident during his visit.

Biden’s two events produced no progress toward renewed talks in the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the White House did announce a range of measures meant to improve the situation at a time “when Palestinians are hurting, you can just feel it,” Biden said after his meeting with Abbas.

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

“I know that the goal of the two state [solution] seems so far away, while indignities like restrictions on movement and travel or the daily worry of your children’s safety are real and immediate,” the president said. “So even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis closer together.”

The administration approved $316 million in new aid for Palestinians, including $100 million for a hospital network that serves patients from the West Bank and Gaza. Another $200 million will go to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, funding that was largely eliminated by the Trump administration. Biden, who has pledged to renew support for Palestinians, began restoring Washington’s contribution soon after taking office.

The White House also announced $15 million in emergency aid to help the territories during grain shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as an initiative to speed the rollout of 4G technology in the West Bank and Gaza. The administration said it was also pressing Israel to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians by streamlining the crossing between the West Bank and Jordan.

“It’s an honor to see firsthand the quality of care you provide to the Palestinian people,” Biden said after touring Augusta Victoria Hospital, the leading advanced-care facility available to residents of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, most of whom need Israeli permission to travel there.

“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” the president said, announcing the new hospital funding. “And access to health care when you need it is essential to leading a life of dignity.”

Biden traveled to East Jerusalem without any Israeli officials to accompany him, leading some right-wing politicians to complain that the president was undermining Israel’s sovereignty over the entire city, including its Palestinian neighborhoods.

Palestinians hold little hope in Biden visit to improve their lives

Biden, who has declined to reverse President Donald Trump’s shift of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, said that his solo trip to the hospital did not signal a shift in policy. He reiterated the official view that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital during his meeting with Abbas, according to the White House. But he said the city’s ultimate boundaries must be determined through future negotiations.

The president’s meetings with Palestinians follow two days of warm embraces from Israeli officials, during which Biden made his support for the Jewish state clear and laid claim to the label of “Zionist.”

His reception on the other side of the security wall has been less enthusiastic, reflecting disappointment that Biden hasn’t done more to pressure Israel to resume peace talks and improve its treatment of Palestinians under occupation.

Some protesters in Ramallah held up “Biden Go Home” posters during a demonstration Thursday. An Israeli advocacy group, B’Tselem, mounted billboards near the 26-foot-high separation wall in Bethlehem reading “Mr. President, This is Apartheid,” a characterization Biden has rejected.

In Bethlehem, Biden again affirmed his support for a peace agreement that would end the Israeli occupation and create an independent Palestine, as he did during stops in Israel, but also he saw no prospects to restart talks. He had indicated his intention to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, but so far hasn’t in the face of Israeli objections.

So far in his presidency, Palestinians don’t see Biden as their champion, according to pollsters.

“Palestinians see it as a positive thing that this president has restored some of the funding and talks to Palestinian leaders, but overall the feeling about this trip and the last year and a half is one of disappointment,” said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “The hope that he would be very different from Trump has faded. Now they see him as only slightly different.”

After Biden met with Abbas, the Palestinian leader asked the president in front of reporters to pressure Israel to halt the expansion of settlements and acts of violence by settlers against Palestinians, as well as the policy of demolishing Palestinian houses and frequent Israeli raids and arrests in Palestinian towns.

Abbas also asked Biden to reopen the East Jerusalem consulate, the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization and to remove it from the list of designated terrorist organizations.

“We are not terrorists,” Abbas said, who is chairman of the organization.

Abbas also asked Biden to press for more investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh, the journalist who was killed in the West Bank city of Jenin while reporting on an Israeli raid.

Arab American journalists around the world shared stories of slain reporter Shireen Abu Akleh’s impact and legacy in the wake of her killing on May 11. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

Israel, after initially saying Abu Akleh was probably killed by a Palestinian gunman during a firefight, now says it cannot be determined who was responsible. The Biden administration, after brokering a joint ballistic analysis earlier this month, has accepted the finding that the shot likely came from an Israeli soldier.

In Bethlehem, Biden called her death “an enormous loss to the vital work of sharing with the world the story of the Palestinian people.”

“The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom,” he said.

With the liberal wing of the Democratic Party increasingly aligning with Palestinian causes, many here expected Biden to engage with the conflict more forcefully than he has, Shikaki said.

“He’s not even doing as much as Obama did,” Shikaki said. “That they can’t even do something as small and symbolic as opening the consulate is seen as a real lack of courage or will or ability.”

Some Palestinians see Biden’s events in the West Bank, slotted between his days in Israel and his departure for Saudi Arabia, as a footnote to his real priority: deepening Israel’s ties with other Arab nations in the region. The Saudis’ gulf neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries that have recently entered formal relations with Israel despite their long-standing pledge not to do so without a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.

The Saudi government announced Friday that it was opening its airspace to Israeli commercial flights, ending a traditional blockade that will save hours on flights between Israel and parts of Asia. Biden and Israeli officials hailed the shift as a step toward warmer relations between the two countries.