The Palestinian Liberation Organization's mission is shown September 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: The US has given the office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington 30 days to close its premises, bringing to a conclusive end a move that began in November when the administration first declared its intention to close down the office after Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on the Intenational Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate and prosecute the Israeli occupation regime for war crimes.

Later, the US backtracked on its intention, advising the Palestinian leadership to limit PLO activities in the United States to efforts to achieve peace with Israel.

The PLO is recognised by most of the world as the “legitimate representative” of Palestinians. Its office in Washington, DC —while not recognised as an embassy, since there is no recognition of a Palestinian state — is one of the few Palestinian vehicles for communication with the levers of US power. It has survived repeated political and legislative calls to shut it down, across decades of unsuccessful US efforts to forge a peace agreement between Palestinians and Israels.

In its statement justifying the PLO office closure, the State Department said that far from cooperating, “the PLO 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.”

Six-month renewal

The requirement about the mission closing stems from a little-noticed provision in US law that says the US cannot allow the Palestinians to have a Washington office if they back the international court’s move to investigate or prosecute Israeli nationals for crimes against Palestinians.

Also, according to a longstanding American law, permission for the PLO to maintain its mission in Washington must be renewed every six months.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat called closing of the PLO office the continuation of a policy of “collective punishment” by the US administration. “These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two-state solution,” he said.

The United States, he said, is not “part of the peace process” and does not even have the right to “sit in the room” during any negotiations. Numerous Palestinian officials have said the United States can no longer be an “honest broker” for peace. Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, described Monday’s action as a form of “crude and vicious blackmail” and “clear proof of American collusion with Israel’s occupation.”

The US decision comes amid the Trump administration’s systematic chipping way at the core tenets of Palestinian aspirations for any negotiations and its ramping up of financial pressure on the PNA, which operates out of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Widening rift

The decision also comes just ahead of the 25th anniversary of the first Oslo accord on September 13, that raised hopes of a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Late last year, President Donald Trump declared US recognition of occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This year, the State Department cancelled most US aid funding to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Late last month, in a move that effectively dismissed any Palestinian right of return to their ancestral homeland, the administration called for a redefinition of Palestinian refugee status and said the US would no longer fund the UN refugee aid programme. Although US president Donald Trump has often declared “progress” in the secretive compiling of what is said to be a “comprehensive” plan, its release has repeatedly been delayed, deepening scepticism surrounding the US role in brokering peace talks between Palestine and Israel.

Palestine and the ICC

The Palestinians have asked the ICC to investigate Israel on issues ranging from colony- building in the occupied West Bank to civilian casualties in the 2014 Gaza war, among others.

Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al Malki visited the ICC in May and called on it to open an immediate investigation.

The ICC launched a preliminary probe in 2015 into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Israel and the Occupied Territories, in the wake of the regime’s devastating war on Gaza.

Despite a visit to the region, the tribunal has yet to move to the next stage and open a full-blown investigation which could possibly lead to charges being brought.

UNRWA facing the ‘worst crisis ever’

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees on Monday appealed for funds to tackle an unprecedented financial crisis caused by the US scrapping contributions.

“We still need $200 million (Dh734 million) to tackle the deficit this year,” UNRWA commissioner general Pierre Krahenbuhl told a news conference in Cairo. While UNRWA has experienced many types of crisis since it was created... in financial terms... this is the worst crisis ever faced,” he said.

The United States was the biggest contributor to the agency’s budget in 2017, donating $350 million.

The US State Department said last month it would no longer fund UNRWA because it was “irredeemably flawed”.

To help plug the shortfall, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab 
Emirates have said they will contribute $50 million each, Krahenbuhl 

He added he was hopeful China, Japan, India and European countries would also contribute funds.

Krahenbuhl on Monday met Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Arab League chief Ahmad Abul Gheit.

Arab countries “will not permit the dismantling of UNRWA”, a statement by the League said.

Yesterday, the Arab League met in Cairo for a summit — attended by Krahenbuhl — devoted largely to UNRWA.

UNRWA has provided essential aid to millions of Palestinians since it was established nearly 70 years ago, just after the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.