Middle East Eye / June 17, 2022
Palestinian-American activists denounce White House request that Israel avoid any actions that could increase tensions in the West Bank ahead of US president’s visit next month.
Palestinian activists in the US have criticized the request reportedly made by the administration of US President Joe Biden that Israel temporarily halt actions in the occupied West Bank ahead of the president’s visit next month, saying it highlights the “magnitude of this administration’s weakness” and its inability to come up with a coherent policy towards Palestinians.
Axios reported the administration had asked Israel to halt home demolitions, evictions of Palestinians and any decisions on settlement building “until after Biden’s visit” in mid-July.
“The Biden administration doesn’t want us to create any crisis in the West Bank… They want quiet and calm” for Biden’s visit, a senior Israeli official told Axios.
Several Palestinian-Americans told Middle East Eye that the remarks were not a surprise, and cemented in their view how the Biden administration and previous US governments view Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“If these comments indicate anything, it’s that the Biden administration has neither a vision nor a plan to deal with the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories,” Osama Abuirshaid, executive director of American Muslims for Palestine (AMP), told MEE.
“The administration may have decided that this was an issue that failed many American presidents before Biden, so taking a political risk seems unnecessary.”
In response to a request for comment on the reported remarks, a State Department spokesperson told MEE that the administration “has been clear that it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, this certainly includes settlement activity”.
The State Department declined to comment further on the matter.
Biden’s ‘wink and nod’ to Israel
Since Biden came into office, Israel has demolished more than 1,200 Palestinian-owned structures in the West Bank and left more than 1,600 Palestinians without a home, according to UN data.
Meanwhile, in East Jerusalem alone, more than 20,000 Palestinian-owned housing units are at risk of demolition, according to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem.
Israel is destroying Palestinian neighbourhoods to make way for tourist parks themed around biblical subjects.
Palestinian activists, as well as a number of US lawmakers, have called on the administration to urge Israel to halt these demolitions.
Still, Israel has continued to force Palestinians out of their homes, razing houses that do not hold building permits which are almost never issued to Palestinians.
Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American novelist and activist, told MEE that the remarks reported by Axios reveal how the administration views issues such as Israeli demolitions.
“It’s illustrative of the United States’ real policy toward Israel,” Abulhawa said.
“They generally don’t care what Israel does, Israel can do whatever they want. But Biden’s going on a trip there and he has a certain purpose and he wants to fulfil that purpose.
“It’s kind of a wink and a nod to their partner, Israel, to lay low for a little bit.”
Abuirshaid said that Biden appears to be “begging for some kind of Israeli calm … so as not to cause him any embarrassment”.
Yet despite the reported request, Axios reported that Israeli leaders could not make any such promises, citing “the domestic political complexities of halting such actions”.
“Unfortunately, even this humiliating plea may fall on deaf ears. The Israeli government is fully aware of the magnitude of this administration’s weakness and can care less about the US president’s embarrassment or loss of political capital despite unfettered US support to Israel,” Abuirshaid said.
No political horizon for Palestinians
Many Palestinian activists, who have seen decades of US-led negotiations and discussions around their future yield little constructive action, do not see tangible policy being pursued by the Biden administration in relation to the occupied Palestinian territories.
The US president promised to reverse many of the one-sided actions taken by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and early on did restore funding to the cash-strapped UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
However, despite some progress, the administration has yet to fulfil its goal of restoring the US consulate in East Jerusalem serving Palestinians, nor did it reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington. Even UNRWA has said this week that it is facing a $100m funding shortfall.
“Until now, it has not been possible to talk about a political approach by the Biden administration towards the Palestinians,” Abuirshaid said. “This administration has yet to offer Palestinians a new horizon. Instead, it demands Palestinians to preserve Israel’s security and ensure calm, while continuing to willingly turn a blind eye to Israel’s crimes and provocations.”
Congresswoman Marie Newman also expressed frustration at the US administration, saying Biden needed to demonstrate a “will” to bring forth negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
“I think it is not a priority for them. And as much as I scream about it, Rashida [Tlaib] screams about it, and Ilhan [Omar] – there are ten of us that talk to the State Department regularly about this – it has not been prioritized,” Newman said during a radio interview with Arab News earlier this month.
Still, Abuirshaid said Biden still had a chance to use his visit to push Israel to permanently halt its violations against Palestinians – by conditioning US aid.
The president, say activists, could also announce the reopening of the US consulate in East Jerusalem, or announce the US would “actively participate” in an investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed last month by Israeli forces during a raid on the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank. Israel denies responsibility for her death.
The call, particularly the investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, has echoed throughout Congress, with multiple congressional letters sent to the administration seeking Washington’s direct involvement in such a probe.
Umar Farooq is a journalist based in Washington DC