A month after the Trump administration ordered the delegation for the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, to end operations in Washington DC, consular staff vacated their four-story red brick building yesterday afternoon in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood.
The “unusually hostile decision,” said consular affairs officer Shahinaz Wafi, strips the Palestinians of its only representative office in the U.S., “thus severing diplomatic and political ties between the two governments.”
In a September 10, 2018, letter, the State Department told the PLO that its bid to sanction Israel at the International Criminal Court is a violation of an obscure U.S law. The result was the staff would lose their status but were given an additional 30 days to move out.
That initial announcement was soft-toned, and State spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters last month that she would like to see the office stay open. But when asked if State “would… like to see the office reopen and relations resumed?” yesterday another spokesperson said he would have to get back to reporter on the question.
Hours after the PLO Mission closed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a gala for the Jewish Institute for National Security of America Awards Dinner in Washington DC “I actually signed a memo today with respect to the Taylor Force Act denying $165 million that would have been appropriated to the Palestinian Authority,” he said referencing a law passed by Congress in March to withhold money from the Palestinian government.
When Donald Trump first took office, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with him four times, including once in Washington. It was the most any U.S. president has conferred with a Palestinian leader. Yet relations began breaking down last December when President Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Shortly after, Abbas and Trump abruptly stopped talking. In May, Ambassador Husam Zomlot was recalled to Ramallah just as the U.S. relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Over recent weeks the Trump administration cut more than $300 million to support for Palestinian refugees, with more cuts announced yesterday.
At the same time the U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt and the president’s son-in, Jared Kushner, pressed forward with crafting what they have billed as a comprehensive deal for a Middle East peace agreement with Israel, albeit without Palestinian participation.
“The Unites States government was supposed to be the guide,” Samer Khalaf, president of the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told a media scrum outside the PLO office moments before a plaque was removed. “What Donald Trump has done the last year or two has sort of laid bare the truth of the matter. The truth that the Americans were never really a neutral mediator.”
Head of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, said the Mission was opened in the context of the Oslo Accords in 1994, which gave Palestinians a direct channel in Washington. Over the last 25 years, Israel, he charged, “violated every single condition of that peace accord and has never been sanctioned, and not only that, but is receiving increasingly more aid and acceptance of all of their illegal policies.”
By contrast, “The weakest party,” the Palestinians, “was always expected to do the heaviest living, has been repeatedly sanctioned, and today their office is being closed.”
Zogby continued, “What we’re here to say quite simply is, you can close the office and you can silence the voice, but the Palestinian people will not go away they remain they remain on their land, they remain in their camps waiting to return, and we here, as a community, remain as their voice, the voice of the Palestinian people.” He described Palestinians’ treatment as “the wound in the heart of the Arab world that never healed.”
“They have not given up before, and they will not give up now,” he said.
There are also practical matters. Without a diplomatic post in the U.S. many Palestinian-Americans are in a quagmire when it comes to travel documents and buying or selling properties held in the West Bank.
“There are land issues, there are burial issues, there are registration issues. Babies want to be registered Palestinian, to get a Palestinian ID,” Zogby explained. “Like Cuba used to operate out of the Swiss embassy, they will seek one of the Arab embassies to allow them to have consular services and the State Department will have to approve that.”
The PLO’s Wafi later told Mondoweiss no such alternative venue is lined up. “We are waiting for our government to decide, this is going to be soon because we are not going to leave our people without someone to take care of them.”
When asked if two oversized Palestinian flags perched street-facing would be lowered, Wafi said, “It’s going to stay up.” She would not confirm rumors that the State Department has requested the flags come down. The building itself was purchased by Palestinian haircare billionaire Farouk Shami, a former longtime business associate of Donald Trump who appeared on the president’s show, “The Apprentice.”