The shuttering of the PLO office in the US, and the Trump administration's open hostility against Palestinians, puts US diplomatic relations in a time machine back to before the Oslo Accords.

The red, green, white and black of the Palestinian flag continue to fly over the front door of the Palestine Liberation Organization offices in Washington DC, but the building is empty. 

 Peering through the tinted glass of its locked front doors, you can still see two photos of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas hanging in the lobby, and an unplugged electrical cord beside a receptionist’s desk.

Located just a short walk from Georgetown University, where some students prepare for a future in diplomacy, the shuttering of the PLO offices last week by the Trump administration means those students will be working in a world where Palestinians face even greater indignities than they do today.

Their expensive textbooks are becoming obsolete as you read this. 

As I write this, Gaza has come under a fresh Israeli attack, carried out with weapons paid for by the billions of dollars the US government provides Israel every year to ‘aid’ its occupation of Palestinian territory and suppression of the rights of Palestinians - who have only rocks or burning kites to lob into Israel, provoking a punishing response against civilians. 

Now that pattern is something Georgetown students can count on remaining unchanged.

Logistical labryinth for Palestinians

The modest foothold on diplomatic recognition in the United States that Palestinians won in the Oslo Accords proved no match for the Trump White House. The day the offices closed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the stoppage of all American aid to the Palestinian Authority, approximately $165 million dollars. 

This comes after the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides a crucial lifeline for Palestinians, especially in the besieged Gaza Strip.

A replacement for American aid to Palestinians could be in the form of an entrepreneurial fund that requires Israelis and Palestinians to form joint ventures to receive seed money from the US. But that bill remains in its first stages, and won’t come into effect in time to help Palestinians literally left out in the cold.

The Trump administration, with the help of Republicans in Congress, made their move against the PLO to stop Palestinian officials from paying money to the families of those who carry out violent attacks, Palestinians left widowed, injured or homeless after Israeli demolition of their homes in retribution. 

The effect, however, is the collective punishment of innocent people, including American citizens.

Palestinian Americans relied on the PLO consular offices in DC to help them interact with their homeland on an administrative basis. This sounds dry, but it’s not. 

The PLO offices helped Americans bury their family members in the Palestinian territories, record marriages or births and to obtain identification documents Israel requires for them to visit. 

A big part of the Israeli occupation is keeping track of how many Palestinians are under its control; and Palestinian Americans are no exception, even as tourists.

“The Israelis won’t let them in on their passport,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, an advocacy group based in Washington DC told TRT World. 

“All of these issues require an authority to process them. And that’s something that Palestinians didn’t have in the 60s, 70s, 80s. Everything had to go through the Israelis. I recall that we had a number of issues of Palestinians who would have land confiscated or wanted to bring back a parent to bury who died here and the Israelis would prohibit that. The Israelis were the sole governing authority at that point.”

Economic chokehold

The shuttering of the PLO office and the open hostility of the Trump administration puts US diplomatic relations in a kind of time machine back to before the Oslo Accords, which were intended to set Palestinians on the path to sovereignty. 

But thanks to the continued Israeli military occupation of the West Bank alongside the building of civilian settlements in violation of international law and bitter division between different factions of Palestinian leadership, the hope for a Palestinian state has eroded.

For Palestinians, Zogby said, “Oslo created a weird set of conditions where they’re not in control, they’re not the fully sovereign authority but they do have control over registering births and deaths in the areas they control and then the processing of IDs for those who want to have a Palestinian ID to travel on.

“My assumption is that some government will be authorised to provide Palestinians those services,” he added. 

 “The question is who will house the Palestinian one or will the State Department balk and not even allow that. I don’t know.”

The bill that is starting its way through the rickety labyrinth of US lawmaking, the Palestinian Partnership Fund Act of 2018 (the Senate’s version is available here), would reportedly provide $100 million to businesses started by Palestinians and Israelis jointly.

“Building on previous US efforts at reconciliation, this bipartisan bill is a genuine attempt by the United States to regenerate our historic role in finding creative and imaginative pathways to secure a sustainable peace,” Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican Congressman, said in a statement.  

“This starts by recreating new and better economic and interpersonal linkages for prosperity, and interconnectedness between the region’s peoples.”

It’s hard to imagine how this will work, given that Palestinian Americans have no consular services in the United States. Israelis themselves are prohibited by Israeli law from even going into certain areas of the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control. 

As it stands now, Palestinians are left dependent on Israel for much of their food, water and medical supplies, and the main form of Palestinian-Israeli economic cooperation comes in the form of Palestinians working as day laborers, crossing the 1949 Armistice Line to toil on Israeli farms. Demand is high for this kind of work, even spawning an exploitative black market for work permits.

Zogby said that he’s supports the idea of entrepreneurial funds that provide small loans for Palestinian businesses, but making them dependent on having an Israeli partner turns the clock back on the peace process.

“That was the bad old days before Oslo, where a Palestinian couldn’t export unless they had an Israeli. And to this day, the Israelis don’t allow easy access and egress to the territories,” Zogby said of his experience in the 1990s, trying to develop the Palestinian economy after Oslo. 

 “Companies looking for a Palestinian partner found that they could not get the Israelis to guarantee they would let in the raw material and export the finished product,” he said. “They didn’t want to surrender economic control of the territories”

Zogby described the that even wringing the rights from an Israeli franchise owner to sell Coca Cola in the Palestinian territories was a challenge. Two decades later, the two biggest sectors of the Palestinian economy are day labor on settlements or in Israel, and civil service work for the Palestinian Authority.

“That’s not an economy, that’s a dependency,” he said.

Boycott apartheid?

The future seems even bleaker, according to former US diplomat Chas Freeman, who worked for decades as a foreign service officer. In retirement, Freeman spoke openly about the self defeating, cruel policies the Israelis pursue, and faced severe backlash from pro-Israel groups. He said that the course taken by the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lead to “tragedy” for all parties involved.

Highly influential American donors, such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, help fund both Trump’s political fortunes and Israeli media that encourage the ‘apartheid system’ currently in place, and there is little appetite among US lawmakers to take Israel to task for its inhumane treatment of Palestinians.

“What could be done is end the enablement but that’s very unlikely. We have an extraordinarily venal political system, and as long as the money is on the side of Israel nothing will be done to deprive Israel of the subsidies both direct and indirect that we give it,” he said.

Ultimately, what Israel wants is a “one state solution” that undermines even the faintest traces of Palestinian sovereignty, Freeman told TRT World. 

Efforts to isolate Israel, such as the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, might not work as well as they did in South Africa, when boycotts, and the end of the Cold War, lead the White South African minority to relinquish control, concede to demands for elections and give up its small nuclear arsenal, likely built with Israeli technical assistance.

“The Israel-Palestine issue is turning into a civil rights issue, it’s turning into the equivalent of the South African struggle against Apartheid. Some of the same instruments are being brought to bear, but I’m not all that confident that BDS, despite that its aimed at eroding enablement, can actually be effective. And the reason is that I’m skeptical is simple. I worked on South Africa and was in and out of it alot in the Apartheid era and the Afrikaaners who were the core of the white dominance in South Africa and the inventors of the Apartheid had a self image that saw themselves as the representatives of Western enlightenment, they saw themselves as the chosen people, and when sanctions, particularly sporting sanctions, when they discovered the West didn’t accept them as part of our world because of the fact that they were practicing racial discrimination this really hurt them. They had a crisis of conscience. A reaction to the agitation to be sure,” Freeman said.

But the situation in Israel, although similar in form to South Africa, is significantly different in historical context, and how Israelis conceive of their place in the world.

“You’re never going to get that in Israel because the Israeli Jewish population has been indoctrinated to believe that the whole world is out to get them. Basically if you go against the Israelis with BDS or sanctions is your confirming their delusions. And you just drive them further into the realm of the dark. You never really persuade anybody by giving them a finger from the other side of the street.”

The Palestinian flag, and the spirit of resistance, still flies high over the former Palestinian Liberation Organization office in DC, but in the corridors of American power, the inertia on improving the fate of Palestine is immovable.