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Gaza aid policy aims to make Hamas 'foothold begin to slip'

In Ramallah, Blinken announces plans to reopen US consulate in Jerusalem

De facto mission to Palestinians was merged into embassy by Trump administration; secretary of state says he notified Netanyahu; move requires Israeli approval

Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Alex Brandon / POOL / AFP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Alex Brandon / POOL / AFP)

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem that had historically served as the de facto representative to the Palestinians.

Blinken made the comments while meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah,

“As I told both Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and President Abbas, the United States will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem. That’s an important way for our country to engage with and provide support for the Palestinian people,” Blinken told reporters while sitting alongside Abbas, during his first trip to the region as US President Joe Biden’s top diplomat.

Blinken also announced US plans to send tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians to assist in the reconstruction of Gaza, following the 11-day conflict between Israel and terror groups there that brought the secretary to the region.

In 2019, the Trump administration merged the 175-year-old Jerusalem consulate into the US embassy in the city, which had been transferred from Tel Aviv a year earlier. Much of the staff at the historic mission on Agron Street in downtown West Jerusalem continued their same jobs, though under a newly named Palestinian Affairs Unit formed under the larger umbrella of US relations to Israel.

Then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo justified the move, saying it would lead to greater efficiency. However, many of the diplomats on the ground opposed the merger, and senior Palestinian officials subsequently severed contact with the Agron mission.

Biden campaigned on reopening both the consulate in Jerusalem as well as the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, which was shuttered by Trump in 2018. Both moves will face legal hurdles.

Israeli approval will be required to open a diplomatic mission in its capital, and according to Axios, Netanyahu pushed back on the request, saying he’d prefer if things remain as they are.

A former US official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the US expects Israel to eventually comply with the request, as Jerusalem will likely want to reserve its clashes with the administration to conversations about its efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal.

The former official said that the Biden administration recognized the urgency of reopening the mission during the latest Gaza violence. As tensions spiked in Jerusalem in the weeks leading up to the May 10-20 war in the Strip, the US lacked an independent mission with close ties to the relevant parties and an ability to thoroughly report back to Washington, the ex-official said, acknowledging that the White House had been late in its engagement efforts aimed at de-escalation.

That realization is what led the White House to fast-track their plans to reopen the consulate, which some thought would have to wait until after a permanent government is formed in Israel, a source familiar with the matter said.

Blinken did not specify in his announcement where the consulate will be placed. The most practical spot for the mission could well be on Agron Street where its diplomats are already located. It would also allow the US to explain that the site is simply a continuation of the long-held, pre-Trump status quo. However, the Biden administration has also emphatically stated its support for a two-state solution. The Palestinians demand East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, so placing a consulate on Agron Street in West Jerusalem could be seen as a statement against that vision. Placing the mission in East Jerusalem, indicating support for the traditional two-state paradigm, would likely cause greater tension with the Israelis who view the entire city as their capital.

It’s also not clear what the specific role of the consulate will be. The old mission on Agron was responsible for serving all residents of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Given that the vast majority of those civilians are Palestinian, the consulate was known as the de facto representative to them and its diplomats communicated regularly with PA officials.

Returning to the old paradigm would likely anger settlers and their supporters who believe they should be grouped with the rest of Israeli citizens that report to the embassy in Jerusalem, not the consulate, for their consular needs.

Reopening the PLO mission in DC could well be even more challenging. Doing so would violate Congressional legislation that ordered its shuttering if the Palestinians filed a suit against Israel at the ICC, which they did in 2017.

Another major stumbling block to reopening the mission is congressional legislation from 1987 that labels the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) “and its affiliates” a terror group.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 25, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

The PA is hoping that Biden will agree to deem the legislation an unconstitutional restraint on the executive’s powers. In exchange it is prepared to make changes to its payment of stipends to Palestinian security prisoners and slain terrorists, officials in Ramallah have told The Times of Israel.

An alteration of the PA welfare program may also usher Ramallah into compliance with the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which suspended US aid to the PA as long as it continued to implement the existing prisoner payment policy.

If the 1987 legislation remains on the table, the only way the US will be able to reopen the PLO mission is if Biden follows the paths of his predecessors, signing a waiver every six months stipulating that doing so is a US national interest. However, the US would then need to alter provisions instituted by Congress over the past decade that banned the Palestinians from Washington once they went to the ICC.

Blinken, earlier on Tuesday, told diplomats during a visit to the US embassy in Jerusalem that the Biden administration would be dispatching former senior diplomat Michael Ratney to the city to head the US embassy there until a full-time ambassador is appointed and confirmed. Ratney previously served as a consul-general in Jerusalem.

On Monday, former State Department official Thomas Nides accepted the Biden administration’s offer to serve as the next ambassador to Israel, according to a source familiar with the matter. The White House is expected to announce the move in the coming weeks after which the Senate will be asked to confirm the appointment.

US aid to Palestinians

During the meeting with Abbas Blinken said the United States opposes unilateral actions which could undermine the prospects for a just, durable peace, “whether that is settlement activity, home demolitions, annexation of territory, incitement to violence or compensation of individuals who committed acts of terror.”

“As I told the president, I am here to underscore the commitment of the United States government to its relationship with the Palestinian Authority,” Blinken said.

“We thank the American state for the support it has given to the State of Palestine,” Abbas responded. “We hope that the future is full of diplomatic activities led by the United States and the Quartet, so as to reach a just, comprehensive solution based on international law.”

Also in Monday’s meeting, Blinken announced that the administration would be notifying Congress of its plan to send $75 million in development and economic assistance for the Palestinians. While the secretary referred to it as “additional aid,” this funding was already earmarked by Congress for the fiscal year of 2021.

Blinken announced that the US would provide $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and a little over $32 million for UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian appeal. These funds are part of the $360 million the US is in the process of sending to the Palestinians, Blinken said.

“Asking the international community, asking all of us to help rebuild Gaza only makes sense if there is confidence that what is rebuilt is not lost again because Hamas decides to launch more rocket attacks in the future,” Blinken said.

At a Jerusalem press conference later in the day, Blinken emphasized the US goal of preventing Gaza reconstruction aid from reaching the enclave’s terrorist rulers in Hamas.

“Hamas thrives on despair, on desperation… it’s a movement that thrives on a vacuum of opportunity,” he said, adding that reconstruction efforts would have to address the immediate needs of Gazans while offering “a genuine prospect for opportunity, for progress and material improvement in people’s lives.”

He added that the US would work with the UN, which is leading the reconstruction effort, along with the PA and other partners and that if they succeed, “Hamas’s foothold in Gaza will begin to slip.”

Blinken also said the Biden administration will work with the international community to provide 1.5 million coronavirus vaccines to the Palestinians. Palestinians have yet to see a widespread vaccination campaign. So far, only 11 percent of West Bank Palestinians and 2% of Gazans have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

Blinken also held a meeting Tuesday with Palestinian civil society leaders in Ramallah where he told them that the US believed both Israeli and Palestinians “equally deserve to live in freedom, security, and prosperity.”

Earlier Tuesday, Blinken met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem where he affirmed Biden’s “personal” commitment to Israel’s security and said the US would take a lead role in the “urgent humanitarian reconstruction in Gaza” to ensure a better future for all sides.

“Leaders on both sides” need to take steps “to set a better course for their shared future,” Blinken at a press conference alongside Netanyahu.

Blinken’s meeting with Netanyahu launched a regional tour that saw him head to Ramallah Tuesday afternoon and then to Jordan and Egypt in a bid to shore up last week’s Israel-Gaza ceasefire and launch the reconstruction effort.

He also met with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and opposition leader Yair Lapid in Jerusalem.

The latest military confrontation with Hamas ended in a ceasefire early Friday, leaving over 240 dead in Gaza and 13 dead in Israel. Israel asserts the vast majority of the dead in the Strip were combatants. The fighting began on May 10 when Hamas launched a massive rocket barrage on Israeli cities, sparking IDF retaliatory strikes and 11 days of fighting.

In this May 10, 2021 photo, rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Over 4,000 rockets were fired at Israeli cities, according to the IDF, sending civilians throughout the center and south of the country rushing to bomb shelters at all hours of day and night.

In Gaza, Israeli airstrikes toppled high-rises, smashed a major thoroughfare in Gaza City’s downtown and left people, including children, screaming for help from under the rubble.

Hamas’s public works ministry said 258 buildings — around 1,042 residential and commercial units — were destroyed during the fighting. Another 769 units were severely damaged, rendering them uninhabitable, and 14,536 suffered minor damage. Seventeen hospitals were damaged, as well as 53 schools.

Over 100,000 people were internally displaced during the hostilities, according to the UN. While many have since been able to return to their dwellings, others have been left homeless.

The Israeli military says it does not target civilian structures and takes pains to minimize harm to noncombatants. It maintains it is forced to operate in civilian areas because Palestinian terror groups fire rockets at Israel from inside Gaza’s densely packed cities.

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