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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Palestinians should counter a US assault on their rights by strengthening their institutions and civic society

Suddenly confronted with this spectre of isolation, Palestinians and their friends must recognise the folly of having abandoned the programme of institution-building pioneered and led by former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad

Palestinians inspect a classroom of a UN-run school that was damaged this week in Israeli shelling in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
Palestinians inspect a classroom of a UN-run school that was damaged this week in Israeli shelling in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

Even for a people accustomed to difficult circumstances, the Palestinians are suddenly confronting an extraordinary, unexpected and devastating assault on their national rights, prospects and even identity. How they and their friends respond will determine how much long-term damage they sustain or avoid.

Washington has long been a biased but indispensable third party between Israel and the Palestinians. And there still aren’t any viable alternatives.

However, even those highly suspicious of the Trump administration's intentions have been shocked by the vicious political war it has declared on a huge range of Palestinian concerns.

Donald Trump demolished the negotiating framework established by the 1993 Declaration of Principles by recognising Jerusalem, without any qualifications, as Israel's capital. He keeps reiterating he’s trying to take the issue "off the table" so "we don't have to talk about it anymore".

His administration has eliminated all US funding for Palestinian-related institutions, except the Palestinian Security Forces, which maintain law and order in parts of the West Bank, to Israel's enormous benefit.

However, Palestinian hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem have been stripped of funding. So has the UN agency, UNRWA, that provides humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. And the administration is trying to eradicate that agency altogether and eliminate Palestinian refugees from existence by stripping them of their official refugee status altogether.

Finally last week, the Trump administration shuttered the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington.

All this, they say, is supposed to encourage Palestinian co-operation with a forthcoming Trump team "peace proposal”.

The message to Palestinians is unmistakable: you have no options other than to capitulate to whatever we propose.

Don't think you can go back to the old negotiations. We just cancelled them.

Don't imagine existing agreements mean anything. We just cancelled them too. And don't try to turn to multilateral institutions like the International Criminal Court. We’re declaring war on them as well.

And don't even hope you can just keep what you have now and wait us out. That's all off the table as well and we’re taking as much as we can away from you in advance.

Plus, we’re not giving anything back to you unless you agree to our terms, which we will tell you about sometime soon – maybe.

It’s beyond infuriating. But Palestinians should resist the temptation to overreact.

That’s probably what Jared Kushner and his accomplices want, although he ridiculously insists this bizarre rampage will yield “a much higher chance of actually achieving a real peace”.

Angry gestures won't accomplish anything. This unwarranted assault demands a serious and intelligent reply.

Suddenly confronted with this spectre of isolation, Palestinians and their friends must recognise the folly of having essentially abandoned the programme of institution-building pioneered and led by former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.

Rolling up their sleeves and developing Palestinian national institutions, with or without US support and Israeli permission, should be the main response. Whatever the future holds, Palestinians can’t accomplish much without functional national institutions and a vibrant civil society.

Palestinians should also prepare for the post-Trump era in US politics, which could be rapidly approaching. Even some of Mr Trump’s own officials are working on that.

Palestinians should paint these horrifying developments as a core part of a spate of aberrations by a reckless and foolish administration. They should clearly convey their eagerness to work with the next administration, of whatever party, to rapidly and constructively undo the damage.

To all audiences, Palestinians leaders should squarely blame Mr Trump and his clique and not Washington in general.

The Democratic Party is well-positioned to benefit from the aftermath of the current fiasco. Palestinians have a crucial opportunity to develop closer ties to increasingly receptive Democrats, and not just from the far left, by emphasising the need to resume the quest for an agreement with Israel that ends the conflict and the occupation.

If an opportunity somehow opens with Mr Trump or other Republicans, of course they should take it. But that’s very hard to imagine and an intensive dialogue with Democrats makes more sense now.

As always, Palestinians need help and should get it.

The Arab world can't afford to sit idly by. Mr Trump’s radical diplomatic and political disruption on Palestine is potentially extremely dangerous to even the most stable governments.

Arab states should and have opposed these reprehensible steps on principle and in defence of international law and binding agreements, as well as Palestinian rights.

However, Arab governments – especially those with close relations with Washington – need to also guard against the potential political blowback from this mindless anti-Palestinian campaign.

And as long as the Palestinian issue remains unresolved and, worse, is exacerbated in this gratuitous manner, the main beneficiaries are Iran and Hezbollah, Palestinian radicals like Hamas and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS.

The Arabs need a resolution to this highly destabilising conflict, which is an endless source of strength for all extremists.

Arab countries, therefore, should urgently work with Palestinians to make up for the funding losses and make that funding contingent on institutional and governance development in Palestine. And those that have strong relations with the United States and dealings with Israel should use that influence to oppose and reverse this reckless, incendiary and unprovoked assault on an entire people.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington