US confirms closing PLO mission in Washington
MANDEL NGAN / AFP
The US State Department confirmed Monday it was ordering the closure of the Washington mission of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, throwing already frosty relations between the Trump administration and Ramallah into an even deeper freeze.
"We have permitted the PLO office to conduct operations that support the objective of achieving a lasting, comprehensive peace between Israelis and the Palestinians since the expiration of a previous waiver in November 2017," said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
"However, the PLO has not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel," she said.
"To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise," she said.
The official confirmation came hours after top Palestinian diplomat Dr. Saeb Erekat said he was informed on of the decision by the US.
"We have been notified by a US official of their decision to close the Palestinian mission to the US," the Palestine Liberation Organisation secretary-general said in a statement.
"This is yet another affirmation of the Trump administration's policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people, including by cutting financial support for humanitarian services including health and education," he added.
The closure is yet another blow in a series of measures imposed by Trump’s administration in an attempt to pressure the Palestinians to play ball with its faltering attempt at getting them back to the negotiating table with Israel.
PLO President Mahmoud Abbas and his top aides have shunned the United States's role as mediator in the peace process following Trump's decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem and formally recognize the city as Israel’s capital.
In retribution, Washington has taken an ax to its previously generous aid program for the Palestinian territories.
The soon-to-be expelled Palestinian envoy to Washington, Dr Husam Zumlot, accused the Trump administration of "blindly executing Israel's wish list" and said it was a "dark day for peace in the Middle East."
Israeli leaders did not publicly comment on the move during the Jewish new year holiday, however a diplomatic official said "it is good that the US is taking a clear stand on this issue."
In a speech blasting the International Criminal Court, US National Security Advisor John Bolton said the Palestinians' attempts to prompt the court to investigative Israel over West Bank settlement construction and other policies were a trigger for the decision.
"The Trump Administration will not keep the office open when the Palestinians refuse to take steps to start direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel," he said in a speech laying out US policy on the international court.
"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."
Trump has since pledged to withhold aid from the Palestinians until they return to the negotiating table as his White House seeks to craft a plan for Middle East peace -- what he has called the "ultimate deal."
In recent weeks, the United States has cut more than $200 million in bilateral aid to the Palestinians as well as cancelled its support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
Last November, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had refused to re-certify the PLO's compliance with a number of Congressional conditions that enable it to maintain its Washington office, specifically citing PLO President Mahmoud Abbas' speech to the United Nations in September, in which he urged the International Criminal Court (to investigate Israel and prosecute actions by Israelis.
The State Department said that such statements go against a 2015 law which authorizes shuttering the Palestinian mission in Washington if the Palestinians try to take action against Israel at the ICC.
At the time, top Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Al Jazeera that the PA "would put on hold all our communications with this American administration" if the office is closed and reject its role as a mediator in the peace process.
The PLO launched its mission in DC back in 1994 and joined the ICC after the UN granted it observer status in 2012.
In the latest cutback of US aid to Palestinian, the State Department announced over the weekend that it was withdrawing a planned $25 million payment to six East Jerusalem hospitals that are the main treatment centers for Palestinians who need medical care not available in Gaza or the West Bank.
Earlier in the summer the US announced that it was freezing aid to the West Bank and Gaza “that directly benefits the PA”, in accordance with the passage of the Taylor Force Act, unless the Secretary of State certifies that the Palestinian Authority has stopped its “pay-for-slay” policies of paying stipends to convicted terrorists in Israeli jails and to the families of dead terrorists.
Last week, the US State Department announced it was cutting off all funding for the United Nations' agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) envoy in Washington DC, was recalled back in December after Trump’s Jerusalem announcement was made and then again in May following its implementation.
The top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, told Al Jazeera at the time that the PA "would put on hold all our communications with this American administration" if the office is closed and reject its role as a mediator in the peace process.
The decision to close the mission comes just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the first Oslo accord on September 13, sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn and meant to lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"We reiterate that the rights of the Palestinian people are not for sale, that we will not succumb to US threats and bullying and that we will continue our legitimate struggle for freedom, justice and independence, including by all political and legal means possible."
AFP contributed to this report.
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