The decision by the Biden administration to contribute $150 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), is a clear signal of what the UN agency said is America’s acts as a means of “restoring its role as a decadeslong friend and supporter of the UN agency that provides lifesaving human development and humanitarian aid assistance to Palestine refugees across the Middle East.” In addition to aid to UNRWA, the US has renewed its humanitarian and security aid to Palestinians.
But while financial support is certainly welcomed by Palestinians, what Palestinians badly want is for Washington to act to stem the continued greed of the Israelis. On the same day that the US announced its aid to Palestinians, the Israeli media reported that 540 new settlement units are set to be approved by the Israeli Jerusalem planning board. The new settlements will be built on land near the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa in Palestinian areas near Bethlehem that Israel occupied in 1967.
This Israeli decision is a slap in the face of US President Joe Biden who, as vice president along with President Barack Obama, had allowed for the approval of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council in December 2016 that rejected any new settlement building. It also is the first time Israel has approved a new illegal settlement since the International Criminal Court announced that it is beginning an investigation into Israel’s war crime of building settlements in occupied areas. Both the Biden administration and the ICC are in agreement that all lands Israeli took in June 1967 are occupied territories and, therefore, UN humanitarian law, specifically UNSC Resolution 2334, apply to this Israeli act.
Biden’s support for Palestinians is one of a number of actions that the president had stated he would do, both during his campaign and after he was sworn in. Other actions promised but not fulfilled are the restoration of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington and the reestablishment of the US consulate in Jerusalem. The consulate had been operating since the 19th century only to be closed abruptly by the Trump administration as a free gift to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The reopening of the Palestinian mission in Washington requires a change in US anti-terror legislation that had existed beforehand and required a waiver by the US president every six months. Correcting this legislation is needed before a Palestinian diplomat can agree to be permanently stationed in Washington without the constant fear of being deported, as had happened to Husam Zomlot, the last Palestinian diplomat to serve in the US capital.
But while financial support and US legislation are being worked on, the US has been unclear what its role will be with regard to the upcoming Palestinian elections and especially the need for Israel to honor its commitment to allow Palestinians in Jerusalem to participate in the legislative elections. Article VI of the Declaration of Principles that was signed on the White House lawn in front of another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, especially details how Jerusalemites can carry out their right to run for office or vote. Israeli police barred a meeting of Palestinian civil society organizations on April 5 as they were trying to plan how the upcoming May 22 elections will be carried out in Jerusalem. A candidate on the Fatah list from Jerusalem, Ghada Abu Rabae, was summoned by the police and, after questioning, was let go.
The message was clear: The Israeli government doesn’t want Jerusalemites to have anything to do with the election of their own legislative council. Jerusalem’s 330,000 Palestinians make up more than 10% of the 2.5 million Palestinians that will participate in the election of the 132 council members. And Israel has allowed Jerusalemites to participate in four previous elections since the signing of the Oslo Accords.
But perhaps the US’s most worrisome position is its insistence – along with the UN, EU and Russia – on the Quartet on the Middle East’s conditions for those who will be able to participate in any future Palestinian government. The Quartet had issued three preconditions that must be fulfilled by any new Palestinian government. These preconditions make the democratic electoral process a joke. Outside powers can’t predetermine for Palestinians who they should elect or who should run their government. What’s more important is the fact that the 2006 conditions imposed by the Quartet played a big role in creating an unfriendly international environment for the pro-Hamas Ismail Haniyeh government. By ordering the entire world not to deal with the Haniyeh government tensions escalated, which led to the 15-year-old decision to issue preconditions.
Now, Palestinians are hoping elections will usher in the chance for a healing of this decision by means of a national unity government that can help restore the legal and administrative unity of Gaza and the West Bank. Instead of insisting on the boycott of those the Quartet doesn’t like, they should encourage the efforts of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to establish a unity government and, in fact, they should insist that the Hamas members of this unity government should be leaders of the Islamic movement in order to ensure their compliance with the badly needed unity.
Biden’s latest decision to support Palestinians and the agency working with Palestinian refugees has been well received in all quarters. The hard work now will begin of ensuring smooth elections and the creation of a new Palestinian government that can carry out the hard decisions of unifying the Palestinian territories and presenting a strong unified delegation for peace talks.