US merges diplomatic office for Palestinians into Jerusalem embassy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the dedication ceremony for the new US embassy in Jerusalem. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced on Thursday (Oct 18) that the US office in Jerusalem dealing with Palestinians is being merged into the controversial new US embassy in the city.

Pompeo said the US Consulate General, a separate office which formerly handled dealings with Palestinians, would be replaced by a new Palestinian Affairs Unit inside the embassy.

The move, which was quickly condemned by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, could effectively leave the US as the only major power without a specific representative office to the Palestinians.

Pompeo denied the decision represented a shift in relations between Washington and the Palestinians, but it came after a series of moves, including shuttering the Palestinian mission in Washington, that have angered them.

"This decision is driven by our global efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations. It does not signal a change of US policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip," Pompeo said in a statement.

He said that the United States "continues to take no position" on how any peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians would take shape.

"The administration is strongly committed to achieving a lasting and comprehensive peace that offers a brighter future to Israel and the Palestinians," he said.

The move was the latest in a series of steps Washington has taken that have effectively downgraded its relationship with the Palestinians, who have for decades sought a separate state alongside Israel.

Analysts say the US moves aim to pressure the Palestinians into peace talks with Israel. President Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner has been in talks with the Israelis on a still-secret peace plan he has reportedly devised.

Last December Trump shook the always-tenuous relationship with the Palestinians to its core when he announced he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, effectively ignoring Palestinian claims on the Holy City and breaking with the policies of his predecessors.

The embassy was officially transferred on May 14, sparking violent protests in Gaza where about 60 Palestinian protestors were killed by Israeli fire.

On Aug 24, the United States cancelled more than US$200 million (S$275 million) in aid for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, and two weeks later said it would cut US$25 million in aid to hospitals primarily serving Palestinians in Jerusalem.

And on Sept 13, the United States ordered the shutdown of the Palestinian mission in Washington, giving the employees another month to finish their work.

James Zogby, a longtime advocate for the Palestinians as president of the Arab American Institute, criticised that closure, saying "You can close the office, and you can silence the voice, but the Palestinian people will not go away."

The Palestinian leadership on Thursday condemned Washington's decision on the Palestinian office in Jerusalem as "ideological."

Palestine Liberation Organisation Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said the decision to "end the existence of the US Consulate" would "reward Israeli violations and crimes."

"The Trump Administration is part of the problem, not part of the solution," he added in a statement.

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