State Department defends controversial terrorism report

Spokeswoman says document claiming various Israeli policies spur Palestinian extremism ‘consistently’ highlights terror attacks against Israelis

US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks to reporters during a press conference in Washington, DC on June 8, 2017 (screen capture)
US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert speaks to reporters during a press conference in Washington, DC on June 8, 2017 (screen capture)

The US State Department on Wednesday defended an annual report on terrorism under fire from pro-Israel groups for saying that a lack of hope drives Palestinian violence.

Meanwhile, the umbrella foreign policy group for Jewish organizations expressed its “deep concerns” about the report, saying it shifts responsibility for terrorism from the Palestinians to Israel.

“In that report we consistently highlight terror attacks perpetuated against Israelis – and I’m just talking about the Israel portion – because this is a worldwide report,” Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday in a briefing when asked about a call earlier in the week from the Zionist Organization of America for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s resignation because of the report.

“Those terror attacks that are perpetuated against Israelis by Hamas and others, there is no justification – and we will say that time and time again – there is no justification for any acts of terrorism,” she said, adding that Tillerson had no plans to resign.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday said it wrote Tillerson to express “deep concern” about the report.

“We hope that Secretary Tillerson will rescind this report and see to an amended version that properly puts the responsibility for the terrorism and incitement that has taken such a heavy toll where it belongs on [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas and the PA,” a Presidents’ Conference statement said. “This report cannot be allowed to stand because other countries and terrorist groups may use it to justify their anti-Israel actions.”

In the report released last week, the State Department listed as “continued drivers of violence” a “lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount, and IDF tactics that the Palestinians considered overly aggressive.”

That kind of diagnosis is unusual for US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been reluctant to criticize Israel, let alone suggest it is partly responsible for Palestinian terror.

Trump has, however, spoken out against settlements as problematic toward reaching an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He told the Sheldon Adelson-owned Hebrew-language daily Israel Hayom in February that settlements “don’t help the process … every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left.”

And at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House the next day, he said he wanted Israel to “hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

The State Department report also said that Palestinian leaders had addressed incitement.

“The PA has taken significant steps during President Abbas’ tenure (2005 to date) to ensure that official institutions in the West Bank under its control do not create or disseminate content that incites violence,” it said. “While some PA leaders have made provocative and inflammatory comments, the PA has made progress in reducing official rhetoric that could be considered incitement to violence.”

“Explicit calls for violence against Israelis, direct exhortations against Jews, and categorical denials by the PA of the possibility of peace with Israel are rare and the leadership does not generally tolerate it,” the report read.

The description flies in the face of Capitol Hill Republicans who have been urging the administration to take a harder stance on Palestinian incitement, particularly its practice of providing social welfare payments to the families of terrorists who kill Israelis.

Trump himself confronted Abbas over incitement during their meetings in Washington and Bethlehem in May. In the latter meeting, he allegeldy yelled at Abbas. “You tricked me in DC! You talked there about your commitment to peace, but the Israelis showed me your involvement in incitement,” he reportedly said.

(Trump was referring to remarks Abbas made standing alongside him in Washington two weeks earlier. “We are raising our youth on a culture of peace,” he said.)

The day before that exchange, Netanyahu showed Trump in Jerusalem a video montage of Abbas, in which he made comments that encouraged violence against Israel, according to The Washington Post.

The State Department report otherwise described Israel as a “committed counterterrorism partner” and detailed the threats that Israel continues to face, particularly from Iran-backed groups.

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