Aiming to avoid picking sides, PA rebuffs US request to condemn Russian invasion

Palestinian official says Ramallah is concerned about the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, but doesn’t ‘have the luxury’ of taking a side in the war

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,  shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during their meeting at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Bethlehem, January 23, 2020. (Alexander Nemenov, Pool via AP)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during their meeting at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Bethlehem, January 23, 2020. (Alexander Nemenov, Pool via AP)

The Palestinian Authority rejected a request from the US to issue a statement condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, as Ramallah maintains a position of neutrality, a Palestinian official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

“We are of course concerned about the humanitarian situation, but we maintain warm ties with both parties and we don’t have the luxury of picking sides like many stronger countries do,” the Palestinian official said, confirming an earlier report on the the Axios news site.

The official described a position in Ramallah similar to Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has avoided criticizing Russia and its president Vladimir Putin for the invasion, as he seeks to balance good relations with both Ukraine and Russia and Israel’s security needs.

But Israel has come off the fence in other ways, with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid unequivocally condemning Russia, and directing Israel’s ambassador to the UN to co-sponsor a General Assembly resolution condemning Russia.

The Palestinian Authority only has observer membership at the UN and therefore was able to avoid taking a public position on the General Assembly resolution.

PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told Palestine TV on Tuesday that Ramallah has been under pressure from “all directions” to take a position on the Ukraine conflict but said it would not do so “because we are a country under occupation and we cannot take a position at the expense of any party.”

The Palestinian official who spoke with The Times of Israel said, “Unlike Israel, which is the stronger party in our conflict, we don’t have the luxury of taking sides.”

The official went on to note the reliance on international law by Western critics of Russia’s invasion, and claimed the same concern is not extended to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked why the PA hasn’t called out Russia for violating international law, the official pointed to the reason al-Maliki gave, saying “a state under occupation could not be expected to pick a side in such a fight.”

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 22, 2020. (Stringer/Flash90)

Russia has long been a champion of the Palestinian cause, with Ramallah hoping Moscow will play a more central role in mediating between it and Jerusalem. The Palestinians believe Russia is more “impartial” than the US, the official explained.

The official acknowledged that frustration with the Biden administration continues over the the White House’s failure to follow through on pledges to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto representative office to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019.

Another Palestinian official said that while the PA is not in a position to condemn Russia, it will maintain its principled stance against recognizing any annexation of territory.

And while the official confirmed pressure from the direction of Washington, they said that more of it has been coming from Germany and the EU.

“But if they want us to act like a state issuing such condemnations, they should treat us like a state at the UN and other international bodies” where the Palestinians are not granted state-status, the official said.

The second official pointed to the mobilization of the G7 forum of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which have mobilized to sanction Russia over its invasion of a sovereign country. “Those same countries are importing settlement goods from the occupied territories, so what do they want from us?”

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