Palestinians seethe over planned US closure of Washington office

Saeb Erekat accuses Trump administration of seeking to 'collectively punish the Palestinian people,' reiterates call for ICC probe of Israel

This photo from November 18, 2017, shows the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

A top Palestinian official lashed out at the United States over its expected decision later Monday to close the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s office in Washington, accusing the Trump administration of seeking to “collectively punish the Palestinian people.”

The planned announcement, which was reported by The Wall Street Journal, comes as US anger grows over Palestinian resistance to its peace overtures and calls by the Palestinian Authority for the International Criminal Court to investigate Israel.

In a statement, Saeb Erekat said the Palestinians were informed of the decision to shutter the PLO mission by a US official and categorized the move with recent American funding cuts to aid programs for Palestinians.

“This dangerous escalation shows that the US is willing to disband the international system in order to protect Israeli crimes and attacks against the land and people of Palestine as well as against peace and security in the rest of our region,” he said.

He also reiterated calls for the ICC to probe “Israeli crimes” and vowed the Palestinians would not “succumb to US threats and bullying.”

“Lowering the flag of Palestine in Washington DC means much more than a new slap by the Trump administration against peace and justice,” Erekat said.

“It symbolizes the US attacks against the international system as a whole, including the Paris Convention, UNESCO and the Human Rights Council among others,” he added, referring to US withdrawals from international agreements and organizations under President Donald Trump.

Saeb Erekat speaks to journalists after a meeting between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, at the Royal Palace, in Amman, Jordan, on January 29, 2018. (Khalil Mazraawi, Pool Photo via AP)

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO Executive Committee, slammed the planned move as “extremely cruel” and “spiteful.”

“This form of crude and vicious blackmail… once again seeks to punish the Palestinian people as a whole who are already victims of the ruthless Israeli military occupation,” she said in a statement carried by the PA’s official Wafa news agency.

Ashrawi charged the decision was “clear proof of American collusion with Israel’s occupation and the rewards, inducements and incentives it provides Israel, as well as a total ignorance of the requirements of a just peace based on international law and respect for human rights.”

PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on February 24, 2015. (WAFA)

Striking a defiant tone, Ashrawi also vowed the Palestinians would “not surrender.”

“No amount of coercion or unwarranted collective punitive measures will bring the Palestinian leadership or people to their knees,” she said.

Husam Zomlot, head of the PLO mission in Washington, told journalists in Ramallah that the closure was “to protect Israel from war crimes, crimes against humanity that Israel is committing in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

“Part of it is bullying,” Zomlot said in response to a question about the US strategy.

“But the main part of it is just going ahead and implementing the grocery list that was submitted to them by (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.”

The closure will be announced in a speech to a conservative legal group by National Security Adviser John Bolton, according to the Journal, and in a formal declaration later Monday by the State Department.

The expected move comes after three consecutive weeks of announced US funding cuts to the Palestinians and on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s remarks that he’ll only resume financial support if the Palestinians agree to a peace deal with Israel.

“The United States will always stand with our friend and ally, Israel,” Bolton will reportedly say. “The Trump administration will not keep the office open when the Palestinians refuse to take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel.”

The PA has boycotted the Trump administration and rebuffed its peace efforts since the US president’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December of last year. The Palestinians claim East Jerusalem — which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed — as the capital of their future state.

In his speech, Bolton will say the closure keeps with congressional opposition to Palestinian attempts to trigger an ICC probe of Israel, the report said. Congress in 2015 mandated that the PLO mission be shut if the Palestinians initiate or support an investigation by the court against Israelis.

“The United States supports a direct and robust peace process, and we will not allow the ICC, or any other organization, to constrain Israel’s right to self-defense,” he is quoted saying in a draft of his speech reviewed by the newspaper.

He is also expected to warn that the US will sanction the ICC if it pursues investigations of the US and Israel. Such sanctions could include barring judges and prosecutors from entering the US, as well as asset freezes.

Exterior view of the headquarters of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, January 12, 2016 (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

In May, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said the White House was weighing closing the PLO mission after the PA’s foreign minister submitted a “referral” to the ICC calling for an investigation of Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank and the violent clashes on the Gaza border.

In mid-November, the US State Department informed PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki that the PLO office in DC would be closed because the Palestinians had violated a 2015 US Congressional mandate.

At the time, a US State Department official cited “certain statements made by Palestinian leaders” about the International Criminal Court as a violation.

In a 2017 address to the United Nations General Assembly, PA President Mahmoud Abbas seemed to violate US law, saying, “We have also called on the International Criminal Court, as is our right, to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials” over Israeli settlement activity, he said.

Jerusalem has long argued that the ICC has no jurisdiction over matters related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since it has no jurisdiction over Israel (which is not a member state) and because Palestine is not a state and therefore cannot exercise jurisdiction over the West Bank.

AFP contributed to this report.

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