Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2018, pp. 28-29
By Delinda C. Hanley
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP marked the 25th anniversary of the Oslo accords by giving the Palestine Liberation Organization’s mission in Washington, DC one month to close its doors and to end all contact with the United States. Palestinians never had an embassy in this nation’s capital because, unlike 135 other countries, the U.S. does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. Nevertheless, the mission has operated like an embassy, officially representing the country and its people since 1994.
Ambassador Husam Zomlot gave the shocking news to his DC staff via video conference on Sept. 10 from Ramallah, where he has been since he was recalled in May by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to protest Trump’s decision to relocate the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In a Washington Post op-ed published Sept. 13, Zomlot wrote, “Ours was a close-knit office of 20 people; we considered one another family. When I told them the news, I could see over the screen that some of them had started to cry. Working at the diplomatic mission was not only a job for them. They were there because they were passionate about defending the Palestinian cause, promoting our culture and taking care of our people. They were inspired by their belief in the work that we did to foster better relations between Palestine and the United States...
“The closure is devastating to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in America,” Zomlot wrote. “Like any other non-American in the United States, they could feel safer knowing that, far from home, they could have a resource to help them in a crisis...We assisted people with tasks that ranged from helping navigate paperwork, like divorce, marriage and school certificates for use in Palestine, to assisting them with funeral arrangements and helping U.S. citizens navigate inheritance issues with their assets in Palestine.”
Next on Sept. 17, the Trump administration revoked U.S. residency permits for Husam Zomlot, his wife Suzan and children, Alma, 5, and Saeed, 7, whose visas were valid until 2020, and closed the family’s bank accounts.
Supporters and press gathered outside the red-brick building on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington on Oct. 10. Hanna Hanania, head of the American Federation of Ramallah, vowed that the Palestinian presence in the U.S. will continue despite the closure of the PLO office. He and others will work to reopen the mission.
Arab American Institute founder and president James Zogby noted that since the 1993 Oslo Accords, “One party to Oslo has violated every single condition of that peace accord and has never been sanctioned. It has received increasingly more aid and more acceptance of all their illegal policies. The other party, the weakest party, was always expected to do the heaviest lifting, and has been repeatedly sanctioned,” Zogby charged. He described the treatment of Palestinians as “the wound in the heart of the Arab world that never healed.”
Zogby concluded, “What we’re here to say quite simply is, you can close the office and you can silence the voice, but the Palestinian people will not go away. They remain. They remain on their land, they remain in their camps waiting to return, and we here, as a community, remain as their voice, the voice of the Palestinian people.”
For 40 years Palestinians have given and given while Israel has taken and taken, said American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee’s national president Samer Khalaf. “What Donald Trump has done has sort of laid bare the truth of the matter. The truth is that the Americans were never really a neutral mediator. Trump has given into every single Israeli demand and left nothing for Palestinians,” Khalaf said. Palestinians who have kept their keys and their papers all these years will wait for a just and lasting peace, he concluded.
Rabbi Joseph Berman from Jewish Voice for Peace called for Americans to organize, take to the streets, and elect leaders who will stand up for justice. Kyle Cristofalo from Churches for Middle East Peace asked the administration to listen. “Christians are in support of a Palestinian state, and justice and equality for all.”
Wa'el Alzayat, who worked at the Department of State for 10 years and is now CEO of Emgage, which educates, engages and empowers Muslim American communities, called for an end of bigoted politics. Ghassan Tarazi, a founding member of the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, said there cannot be peace without justice and when one side is diminished there can’t be justice. Dr. Osama Abuirshaid, director of American Muslims for Palestine, said this administration’s attempt to isolate Palestinians will fail because they have lots of friends in Washington, DC and the rest of the world.
When the consular staff left their building, consular affairs officer Shahinaz Wafi said, this “unusually hostile decision” officially strips the Palestinians of its only representative office in the U.S., “thus severing diplomatic and political ties between the two governments.”
“This is an attempt to shut down your voice. This is an act of censorship,” said Hakam Takash, who has worked in consular affairs at the mission for 18 years. "This is a new beginning, not just in Palestinian-American relations but in the work of this community,” he told the crowd as he removed the plaque on the Washington building. “You'll leave here all as ambassadors today and you will carry this message forward. You will show the world that the Palestinian voice will not be silenced.”
The Palestinian flag will remain since it is a private building owned by Palestinian haircare billionaire Farouk Shami, a former longtime business associate of Donald Trump who appeared on the president’s show, “The Apprentice.”
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.