Biden visits Palestinians, Abbas ahead of Saudi Arabia trip, promises Abu Akleh probe

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JERUSALEM — President Biden devoted the final hours of his Israeli visit to restoring ties with Palestinians severed by his predecessor, visiting a Palestinian hospital Friday in East Jerusalem and walking through an Israeli military checkpoint to meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

The president called for a full account of the May murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in an Israeli raid in the West Bank, the first time he publicly mentioned the incident during his visit.

Biden’s two events produced no progress toward resuming talks in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But the White House announced a series of measures intended to improve the situation at a time “when the Palestinians are hurting, you can just feel it,” Biden said after his meeting with Abbas.

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

“I know that the objective of the two States [solution] seems so far away, while indignities like restrictions on movement and travel or daily concern for the safety of your children are real and immediate,” the president said. “So even if the ground is not ripe at this time to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis together.”

The administration approved $316 million in new aid for the Palestinians, including $100 million for a hospital network that serves patients from the West Bank and Gaza. Another $200 million will go to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, funding that has been largely cut by the Trump administration. Biden, who has pledged to renew his support for the Palestinians, began reinstating Washington’s contribution soon after taking office.

The White House also announced $15 million in emergency assistance to help the territories during grain shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as an initiative to accelerate the deployment of 4G technology. in the West Bank and Gaza. The administration said it is also urging Israel to ease travel restrictions on Palestinians by streamlining passage between the West Bank and Jordan.

“It’s an honor to see firsthand the quality of care you provide to the Palestinian people,” Biden said after touring Augusta Victoria Hospital, the main advanced care facility available to residents of East Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, most of which require Israeli permission to travel there.

“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” the president said, announcing new funding for the hospital. “And access to health care when you need it is essential to lead a dignified life.”

Biden traveled to East Jerusalem without any Israeli officials to accompany him, leading some right-wing politicians to complain that the president was undermining Israel’s sovereignty over the entire city, including its Palestinian neighborhoods.

Palestinians hold little hope in Biden’s visit to improve their lives

Biden, who refused to reverse President Donald Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, said his solo trip to the hospital did not signal a shift in policy. He reiterated the official view that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital during his meeting with Abbas, according to the White House. But he said the ultimate city limits must be determined by future negotiations.

The president’s meetings with the Palestinians follow two days of warm embraces by Israeli officials, during which Biden made clear his support for the Jewish state and claimed the label of “Zionist.”

His reception on the other side of the security wall was less enthusiastic, reflecting disappointment that Biden had not done more to pressure Israel to resume peace talks and improve its treatment of Palestinians under occupation.

Some protesters in Ramallah held up “Biden Go Home” posters during a demonstration on Thursday. An Israeli advocacy group, B’Tselem, erected billboards near the 26-foot-tall separation wall in Bethlehem reading “Mr. President, this is apartheid,” a characterization Biden rejected.

In Bethlehem, Biden again affirmed his support for a peace deal that would end Israeli occupation and create an independent Palestine, as he did during stops in Israel, but he also saw no prospect. relaunch of the talks. He had indicated his intention to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, but so far has not done so in the face of Israeli objections.

So far in his presidency, Palestinians do not see Biden as their champion, pollsters say.

“Palestinians see it as a positive thing that this president has restored some of the funding and talks with Palestinian leaders, but overall the feeling of this trip and the last year and a half is one of disappointment.” said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Polling Research. “The hope that he would be very different from Trump has faded. Now they see him as slightly different.

After Biden met Abbas, the Palestinian leader called on the president in front of reporters to pressure Israel to end settlement expansion and settler violence against Palestinians, as well as the policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and the frequent Israeli raids and arrests in Palestinian towns.

Abbas also asked Biden to reopen the East Jerusalem consulate, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Washington office, and remove it from the list of designated terrorist organizations.

“We are not terrorists,” said Abbas, who is the organisation’s chairman.

Abbas also asked Biden to push for a more thorough investigation into the murder of Abu Akleh, the journalist who was killed in the West Bank city of Jenin while covering an Israeli raid.

Arab-American journalists around the world shared stories about the impact and legacy of slain journalist Shireen Abu Akleh following her May 11 assassination. (Video: Joshua Carroll, Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

Israel, after initially saying Abu Akleh was likely killed by a Palestinian gunman in an exchange of fire, now says it is impossible to determine who was responsible. The Biden administration, after negotiating a joint ballistics analysis earlier this month, accepted the conclusion that the shot likely came from an Israeli soldier.

In Bethlehem, Biden called his death “an enormous loss to the vital work of sharing the story of the Palestinian people with the world.”

“The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent account of his death and will continue to defend media freedom,” he said.

With the liberal wing of the Democratic Party increasingly aligning itself with Palestinian causes, many here expected Biden to engage in the conflict more forcefully than he did, Shikaki said. .

“He doesn’t even make as much as Obama,” Shikaki said. “The fact that they can’t even do something as small and symbolic as opening the consulate is seen as a real lack of courage, will or ability.”

Some Palestinians see Biden’s events in the West Bank, between his days in Israel and his move to Saudi Arabia, as a footnote to his real priority: deepening Israel’s ties with other Arab nations in the region. . Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries that have recently entered into formal relations with Israel despite their long-standing pledge not to do so without a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.

The Saudi government announced on Friday that it was opening its airspace to Israeli commercial flights, ending a traditional blockade that will save hours on flights between Israel and parts of Asia. Biden and Israeli officials hailed the shift as a step toward warmer relations between the two countries.

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