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Palestinians slam U.S. ‘vicious blackmail’ as their Washington office is shuttered

The Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Palestinian officials on Monday vowed not to bend to what they called the Trump administration’s bullying tactics after being notified that their office in Washington would be shut down as part of an effort to block cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he was officially notified of the decision, which the State Department formally announced Monday morning, charging that the Palestine Liberation Organization “has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.” The announcement also cited U.S. “concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court.”

Erekat decried the move as a continuation of a policy of “collective punishment” by the Trump administration. 

“These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two state solution,” he said. “I told them if you are worried about courts, you should stop aiding and abetting crimes.” 

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U.S. moves to pressure the Palestinian leadership over the past year have driven the relationship to a crisis point. They have chipped away at the core tenets of Palestinian aspirations — a capital in part of Jerusalem and a right of return for refugees — while ramping up financial pressure on the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

The Trump administration’s moves, Palestinian officials say, represent an attempt to inflict irreversible damage on their ambitions for a state, as Washington also effectively greenlights Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank.

Thousands of Palestinians began protesting May 14, the same day the Trump administration hailed the movement of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

The United States said last year it would close the PLO’s office in Washington after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute Israel for alleged war crimes. However, he later backtracked on the decision, advising the Palestinian leadership to limit the office’s activities to efforts to achieve peace with Israel as the Trump administration prepares its long-awaited peace plan. 

The order to close the PLO office comes days before the 25th anniversary of the historic Oslo Accords, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel mutually recognized each other and launched a peace process. That pact paved the way for the PLO to open its Washington office the following year, but as it doors close, the optimism surrounding that deal is a distant memory.

The PLO office essentially functions as an embassy but does not officially represent “Palestine,” as the United States does not recognize a Palestinian state, although that is a stated aim of previous administrations. The Trump administration has refrained from directly calling for a two-state solution, saying it would back one if both sides agree.

In a series of blows to the Palestinians, the Trump administration has recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moved the U.S. Embassy there and cut funding to the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees. Then, last week, Washington said it would withdraw $25 million in support from hospitals in East Jerusalem.

In a speech Monday, national security adviser John Bolton threatened to impose sanctions against the International Criminal Court (ICC) if it proceeds with investigations against the United States or Israel.

Saying that the ICC has “threatened” to investigate Israel for actions against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as for its settlement activity in occupied territories, Bolton vowed, “We will not allow the ICC . . . to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense.”

The United States would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the country, sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system and prosecute them in the courts, Bolton said. 

However, Erekat said the Palestinian leadership would double down on its efforts and submit a new complaint to the ICC within 48 hours over an Israeli Supreme Court decision to demolish the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar. 

He said the United States is not “part of the peace process” and does not even have the right to “sit in the room” during any negotiations, and he dismissed U.S. officials such as the ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, as a “group of settlers” pursuing a right-wing Israeli agenda.

Trump’s anti-Palestinian agenda seen as ultimately hurting Israel

Husam Zumlot, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s representative to the United States, accused the White House of attempting to do irreversible damage to the U.S.-Palestinian relationship that would be hard for any future administration to repair. 

As well as checking off a wish list of Israeli demands, such as recognizing Jerusalem, it shows that the United States is attempting to preempt Israel’s fears over international prosecution and a more favorable attitude toward Palestinians among young Americans. He described U.S. efforts to block investigation of Israel at the ICC as an “onslaught against international legality”. 

The United States is not a member of the ICC but cooperated with the court under the Obama administration. Israel is also not a member. Despite vehement Israeli opposition, Palestine was admitted as a member state in 2015. Since then, it has lodged complaints over the expansion of Israeli settlements and alleged war crimes during the 2014 Gaza War and the use of sharpshooters during protests in Gaza this year. 

The latest U.S. moves show that Palestinian efforts to pressure Israel through international institutions are working, Zumlot said. 

For Palestinians, though, U.S. cuts are beginning to bite. This year, the United States has held back $300 million in funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides education, health care and food aid for more than 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, largely the descendants of those displaced when Israel was created in 1948. 

Trump administration ends U.S. funding to U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees

Israel has accused UNRWA of perpetuating the conflict by supporting the descendants of refugees with their “right of return,” which Israel considers a major stumbling block to peace. 

U.S. officials have also said that they will freeze $25 million in funding to six east Jerusalem hospitals that primarily serve Palestinians. The largely church-run hospitals traditionally serve as the main providers of care for Palestinians referred for treatment for procedures not available in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Bolton’s announcement is likely to be widely welcomed by the government in Israel, which was on holiday Monday to mark the Jewish New Year.  

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, described the action as a form of “crude and vicious blackmail.” 

“Such irresponsible moves are clear proof of American collusion with Israel’s occupation,” she said. “The U.S. would do better to finally understand that the Palestinians will not surrender and that no amount of coercion or unwarranted collective punishment measures will bring the Palestinian leadership or people to their knees.” 

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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