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US announces closure of PLO's office in Washington

Bolton confirms closure of PLO office was 'punishment' for calling on Israel to be investigated by the ICC
Donald Trump meeting Mahmoud Abbas in the White House in early May 2017 (AFP)

John Bolton, the US national security adviser, confirmed on Monday that the Trump administration had closed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's office as "punishment" for calling on Israel to be investigated by the International Criminal Court. 

During a speech in Washington, Bolton blamed the Palestinian Authority for failing to take "meaningful steps" to advance peace. 

"Israel too has sharply criticised the ICC, while the court welcomes the membership of the so-called 'state of Palestine'," Bolton said during his speech at the Federalist Society. 

Bolton's comments reinforced an earlier statement by the US Department of State which announced the closure of the office of the General Delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Washington.

Washington's decision is the latest move by US President Donald Trump's administration to close and defund pro-Palestinian institutions.

It comes one day after the 25th anniversary of the letters of mutual recognition that saw Israel and the PLO recognise each other in the US-led Oslo process.

The US Department of State said the PLO "had not taken steps to advance the start of direct and meaningful negotiations with Israel".

"To the contrary, PLO leadership has condemned a US peace plan they have not yet seen and refused to engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts and otherwise," the statement added. 

US threatens ICC

The announcement included a warning to the International Criminal Court saying that "this decision is also consistent with the administration and congressional concerns with Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court".

In the last year, the ICC has shown signs of being willing to bring cases against the United States for possible war crimes.   

Between November 20 and 31 January, organisations in Europe and Afghanistan collected over a million allegations of war crimes from Afghan citizens, relating to US military action in their country since 2001.

Those allegations were submitted to the ICC.

In May, the Palestinian Authority submitted a referral to the ICC calling on the body to open an investigation into "settlement expansion, land grabs, illegal exploitation of natural resources, as well as the brutal and calculated targeting of unarmed protesters, particularly in the Gaza Strip".

Bolton said on Monday that the US will impose sanctions on court officials who attempt to investigate either the US or Israel. 

"The United States will use any means necessary to protect our citizens and those of our allies from unjust prosecution by this illegitimate court," Bolton said.

Potential measures include barring ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the US and freezing any funds they have in the United States.

Trump's national security adviser also threatened other nations that may work with the ICC.

"We will take note if any countries cooperate with ICC investigations of the United States and its allies, and we will remember that cooperation when setting US foreign assistance, military assistance, and intelligence-sharing levels," he said. 

The PLO responds

Responding to Washington’s move to close down the PLO’s offices in the US capital, Saeb Erekat, the organisation’s secretary-general, said in a statement that it was “another affirmation of the Trump administration’s policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people”. 

This is another affirmation of the Trump administration’s policy to collectively punish the Palestinian people

- Saeb Erekat, PLO

The US, Erekat said, seems “willing to disband the international system in order to protect Israeli crimes and attacks against the land and people of Palestine”. He called upon the ICC to “open its immediate investigation into Israeli crimes”.

Palestine joined the ICC in 2012 after receiving an observer state status in the United Nations. The Palestinian Authority (PA) opened a PLO mission in Washington in 1994, after signing the Oslo I Accord peace agreement with Israel in 1993.

The US signed the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court in 2002 but never ratified it.

Ultimate deals

Trump has pledged to reach the "deal of the century" on Israeli-Palestinian peace but has declined to commit to a two-state solution, for years the focus of international diplomacy.

He has also sided with Israel on core issues in the conflict, such as recognising the disputed city of Jerusalem as its capital, while publicly asking for no concessions in return.

Those moves have delighted Israeli politicians who oppose a Palestinian state, but dismayed supporters of a two-state solution.

As the 25th anniversary approaches of the signing of the 1993 Oslo accords - which created a degree of autonomy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza and a framework for a two-state solution - few Palestinians will be celebrating, as Israeli settlement building has multiplied in the West Bank on Palestinian land.

Some 600,000 Israeli settlers now live there and in occupied East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as their capital.

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