Observers and analysts insist Arab reaction to the declaration by US President Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel went no further than expressions of sorrow and surrender, which encouraged Washington to move further on this course. They note that a handful of symbolic protests in some countries and momentary media outrage aimed to save face of rulers in front of their people who hold entirely different positions.
Observers believe there is a campaign coordinated by the US against the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) to dismantle the organisation as part of a push to resolve final status issues such as Jerusalem, the fate of the occupied territories, the return of refugees and borders, to impose a fait accompli that dissolves the Palestinian cause.
Mohannad Abdel-Hamid, a political analyst, believes the US and Israel are working in tandem after Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the US embassy there – a violation of international law that ascribes Jerusalem and the West Bank as “occupied” land. Israel claims the West Bank as part of its own territories with Jerusalem as its capital after the Israeli government approved the construction of thousands of settlement units in Jerusalem and the West Bank. This is an escalation in the ferocious settlement campaign at the expense of Palestinians.
Abdel-Hamid said it came as no surprise that Israel is calling for UNRWA’s demise. Statements by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennet and Interior Minister Gilad Erdan coincided with Washington’s decision to cut down its funding. Bennet claimed UNRWA “supports terrorism in the Gaza Strip”, and Erdan tweeted that UNRWA “does not work on resolving the refugee issue and must be dismantled as soon as possible”.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu cautioned that US threats to stop aid to the Palestinians could exacerbate Palestinian suffering and push them towards war with Israel. He noted, however, that UNRWA “works on eternalising the Palestinian refugee issue and insists on the claim of right of return in order to end the State of Israel. Therefore, its role in the world must end.”
Media reports noted the change of heart of US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on the Palestinian issue. Haley began her diplomatic career as a “defender” of the rights of Palestinian refugees and visited their camps, promising to fund UNRWA with some $300 million annually. Today, however, she is spearheading the White House campaign to sever this key economic lifeline for Palestinians, as part of US policy to punish the Palestinian Authority (PA) for rejecting Washington’s mediation in peace talks.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last month the PA will not accept any peace plan proposed by the US.
The US is the largest donor to UNRWA, giving $368 million last year — or nearly 30 per cent of all funds to the agency that was created in 1949 to assist Palestinian refugees, providing education and health services in the Gaza Strip.
MP Jamal Al-Khodari, chairman of the Popular Committee Against the Siege, said forming a national salvation government is urgent to confront threats to Jerusalem and refugees, and dangers facing the Palestinian cause and the impact of continued divisions.
Al-Khodari said this government would move quickly to study “US steps to reduce assistance to UNRWA, since the lives of 70 per cent of Palestinian refugees are in danger if this decision is applied”.
Hossam Zomlot, the head of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) mission to Washington, said the US’s recent decisions against the Palestinians are a result of Israeli interference to sabotage progress in American society supporting Palestine. Zomlot added that public opinion began to positively shift in support of the Palestinian cause due to the dissemination of alternative information on social media, and the negative impact of right-wing rule in Israel on its stature. Also, the positive role of second and third generation Palestinians in the US.
He noted that this growing empathy towards Palestinians upsets Israel, which is working with lobbies in the US to end official Palestinian representation in Washington. Zomlot continued there are key shifts in US politics and structure, and for the first time the US Congress was presented with anti-Israel legislation; namely, a draft law by Congresswoman Betty McCollum calling for an end to funding Tel Aviv because Israel arrests and tortures Palestinian children.
Zomlot believes Trump’s decision aimed to achieve several goals. First, remove Jerusalem from the equation to any political solution, which is a reversal of previous US promises and renders the US unfit as mediator. Second, strategically it voids the core issue of Jerusalem from the two-state solution and Palestinian cause.
Zomlot explained that a 1987 resolution by Congress “designates the PLO as a terrorist organisation. Even though we signed the Oslo Accords in the White House, have relations and bilateral agreements, we are still categorised as a terrorist organisation. It doesn’t make sense.” He asked: “How can they view us as partners in peace and the war on terrorism, but also see us as terrorists at the same time?”
A source who asked to remain anonymous said that holding an emergency Arab summit in Amman was not suggested during Arab ministerial meetings to discuss the US decision, which concluded earlier this week at the Jordanian Foreign Ministry.
Yasser Al-Zaatra, a writer, believes “there is unprecedented hysteria by Zionists, as well as Trump, his son-in-law and the US ambassador to Tel Aviv, in these decisions. While logic dictates that Zionists and Trump should calm outrage over Jerusalem, they continued their radical decisions.” This includes the Likud Party voting to annex the West Bank, the law known as “unified Jerusalem” that requires 80 of the 120 Knesset members to vote on all Jerusalem-related decisions in a future settlement, and finally a tentative vote to execute attackers.
Al-Zaatra said, “This level of arrogance by Zionists and their poster boy Trump confirm there is no hope for a solution that meets the minimum requirements of Palestinian demands. This unprecedented pomposity puts the PA in front of a difficult reality. It held power and there was gradual progress since 2004 while still selling pipe dreams, and repeatedly asserting it upholds key principles. Today, this leadership is facing a bitter reality and must decide how to react.”
Al-Zaatra responds: “Nothing changed on the ground, whether in security cooperation or the choices of the PA. At best, we heard about a meeting of the Central Council scheduled mid-month – even though it is an irrelevant council and if it takes strong decisions, the leadership ignores them. Thus, it is absurd that Hamas and Jihad will agree to this meeting.”
He believes the future is ominous and responding to the arrogance of the occupation should fall on the leaders of groups brought together, not a council. “This is what the Palestinian people are waiting for, and we pray it does not take too long,” Al-Zaatra said.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly