On the surface, it looked like an innocent event — even the local Palestinian hotel didn’t think twice before renting the organizers space to conduct their workshop.
In response to an inquiry by Al-Monitor, the US Embassy in Jerusalem said, “Palestinians from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza who have participated in US-sponsored exchange programs [such as the Fulbright or International Visitor Leadership Program] were planning to network with each other and engage in leadership and capacity building activities.”
The meeting of Palestinian alumni of American universities scheduled for Aug. 19, which was apparently initiated and paid for by the newly established Palestinian Affairs Unit of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, never took place.
What happened is that when Palestinian activists realized what was happening, they moved fast to put a stop to what they considered US attempts to cause division within Palestinian society. Issam Baker, the coordinator of the National and Islamic Forces in Ramallah and al-Bireh, told the Wattan news agency that “the conference is a sinister act by the US government to cause division in the Palestinian street.”
Baker’s statement points to what appears to be an attempt to bypass the Palestinian leadership, which had been boycotting the US government since the latter moved its embassy to Jerusalem.
Palestinian political forces issued a strong statement Aug. 18 in this regard and called for the cancellation of the event. The Palestinian hotel where the event was supposed to take place was quick to respond. “As a hotel, we are not qualified to discuss the topics that are being discussed in conferences and workshops,” read a public statement issued by the management of Ramallah’s Grand Park Hotel.
“Once the management of the hotel realized this issue, we called the initiators of the event and canceled the event,” read the undated statement, which appeared on the hotel’s website.
The US Embassy also rushed to postpone the event. A spokesperson from the embassy told Al-Monitor Aug. 20 that the US Embassy is “aware of recent statements regarding a planned event for alumni of US educational and cultural programs. In order to avoid the Palestinian participants being put in a difficult situation, we have decided to postpone the event for now. This and other public affairs activities supported by the US Palestinian Affairs Unit are designed to create opportunities for exchange and dialogue between Americans and Palestinians at the grassroots level.”
The altercations with fellow Palestinians using American money to hold a networking event highlights the vague position by Palestinians as to the future of relations with the United States. Palestinian officials say they are boycotting the current US administration but not the American people.
As proof, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and a number of his top officials met with Republican and Democratic delegations who visited the region this summer even though the trip was sponsored by AIPAC, the leading pro-Israeli lobbying group. While some Americans accused Abbas of having snubbed Aug. 13 the visiting Republican congressional delegation, the idea was dismissed by Palestinian officials who noted that the president was busy and had instructed his prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, and the secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, Saeb Erekat, to meet with the Republican members of congress.
Regardless of the cancellation of the conference and the meetings with members of congress, Palestinians understand they can’t continue to uphold such a vague position on the issue of engaging with Washington. While no one has publicly argued it, some Palestinians have said in private talks that the message of the boycott of the Donald Trump administration has been made quite clear and the needs of Palestinians — especially in light of escalating Israeli policies — require that Palestinians don’t ignore Washington indefinitely.
With no third party offering a compromising formula, it will be very difficult for the Palestinian leadership to climb down the high tree they have climbed ever since December 2018 when Trump decided to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is true that the avalanche of other countries following the US move has failed to materialize, with only Guatemala deciding effectively to move the embassy. Other countries had threatened to do so but later retracted.
The incident with the Palestinian students who studied in the United States shows that the problem between Americans and Palestinians is not limited to the official side. Nevertheless, this issue has highlighted a much bigger question that has been left vague for some time. What is also not clear is whether Palestinians, both on the government level and civil society levels, will maintain the boycott of the Palestinian Affairs Unit of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, irrespective of what will happen officially between Ramallah and Washington.
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