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Palestinians say US economic push is no substitute for peace

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Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) – Ahead of Joe Biden’s first visit to Jerusalem as US president, the Washington ambassador said his team would be “pounding the tables” to pressure Israeli officials into making concessions to the Palestinians.

But Ambassador Thomas Nides was talking about ensuring Palestinians have access to economic benefits like 4G internet, not using US diplomatic force to revive a moribund peace process since 2014.

Biden’s first tour of the Middle East since entering the White House last year begins in Israel on Wednesday, and he is expected to meet Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Friday in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

US-Palestinian relations have improved under Biden, after hitting a historic low under his predecessor Donald Trump, a staunch Israeli supporter.

Along with the prospect of a faster internet, the visit could also see the United States restore funding to hospitals in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which have historically served the Palestinians.

But some Palestinians have said they are tired of US diplomacy, which they say emphasizes economic benefits above central issues in the seven-decade conflict.

“It would be nice to have 4G,” said Mohammed Mostafa, former deputy prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and former chief executive of Paltel, the largest telecommunications operator in the Palestinian territories.

“But it’s obviously not a substitute for solving bigger issues like Jerusalem, like sovereignty or like freedom,” he told AFP.

“Israel thinks people will forget about the big picture,” he added.

Hamas expects ‘nothing’

The 4G commitment, which Ambassador Nides highlighted in an interview with The Times of Israel, would offer an immediate boost to Palestinian businesses, Mostafa said.

National flags are prepared for display at the residence of the Israeli president, ahead of Joe Biden’s first visit as US head of state GIL COHEN-MAGEN AFP

Palestinians are currently forced to either buy Israeli SIM cards or struggle with slower 3G connections.

“Israeli operators hold a significant share of the Palestinian telecommunications and broadband market,” Mostafa said. “It would be a chance to bring that back to Palestinian businesses.”

But “Israelis think ‘we’re going to give you 4G so you can shut up about other things,'” Mostafa added. “We’re interested, but we also want bigger things.”

Until July 1, Israel was led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger who opposed the Palestinians’ overriding demand – the creation of their own state.

Bennett has taken an approach known as “conflict narrowing”, seeking to defuse tensions by improving economic opportunities in the West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.

One of these key policies was to increase the permits given to Palestinians, including from Gaza, to seek relatively lucrative work in Israel.

Asked about expectations from Biden’s visit, Hamas official Basem Naim replied, “Nothing.”

Yair Lapid, Bennett’s replacement as Israeli prime minister and a centrist, supports a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict.

But he only serves as interim leader ahead of the November elections and is therefore seen as having little space to launch bold peace initiatives.

Youth walks down Israel's controversial separation barrier in East Jerusalem
Youth walks down Israel’s controversial separation barrier in East Jerusalem Ahmad GharabliAFP

During Lapid’s visit to Paris last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said there was “no alternative to a resumption of political dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Senior Israeli officials told AFP that Lapid was “open” to meeting Abbas, but not launching a new peace initiative at this time.

“Throwing money against the occupation”

In an op-ed for The Washington Post over the weekend, Biden claimed his administration restored about $500 million in support for the Palestinians, after Trump cut funding.

But while Israeli authorities have promised to raise a sea of ​​flags to welcome Biden to Jerusalem, there are few signs of ceremonial anticipation across the West Bank.

Biden is assured of a very warm welcome in Israel, a major US ally, as many Palestinians express apathy over his visit to the region
Biden is assured of a very warm welcome in Israel, a major US ally, as many Palestinians express apathy over his visit to the region GIL COHEN-MAGEN AFP

For Sam Bahour, a prominent Palestinian-American businessman in the West Bank, the apathy over Biden’s visit transcends the latest gyrations in Israeli governance.

“The Biden administration has fallen into the Israeli trap – this trap fragments all Palestinian rights under international law and then uses them as playing cards as if they are giving back concessions to the Palestinians,” he said.

Supporting Israeli initiatives in the West Bank is simply “throwing money at the occupation”.

Bahour said Palestinians can get by with a slower internet, but not without a state.

“We don’t need 4G,” he said. “We need the fourth generation of Palestinians not to live under military occupation.”