The United States has moved from exhibiting an extreme bias in favor of Israel to being complicit in Israeli crimes and a partner in the occupation, said Hanan Ashrawi Tuesday morning at the Arab Center Conference in Washington, DC. Speaking via video call—after the U.S. denied her visa request—the elected official on the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Association (PLO) discussed the upcoming Bahrain Economic Workshop and Peace Plan, “Peace to Prosperity,” with the executive director of the Arab Center, Khalil E. Jahshan.
Ashrawi, elected to the PLO in both 2009 and 2018, is the first female member of the Executive Committee. She has been a long-time Palestinian rights activist and legislator, founding the Independent Commission for Human Rights, the Palestinian human rights institution, in 1994 and serving as its commissioner general until 1995. In 1996, Ashrawi was appointed as the Palestinian Authority minister of higher education and research and was elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council representing Jerusalem. Some of Ashrawi’s previous statements have left her with a controversial reputation. She was accused of defending Hezbollah and Hamas during a speech at Emory University in 2007, during which she blamed Hamas’s 2006 election victory on Israel. Additionally, a 2012 HuffPost article cited her as denying the existence of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. In January 2019, Ashrawi began a Twitter feud with Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s chief Middle East negotiator, over the administration’s peace efforts.
Ashrawi says that the State Department did not give a reason for denying her visa. The State Department would not comment on the circumstances of Ashrawi’s visa denial. “Visa records are confidential under U.S. law; therefore, we cannot discuss the details of individual visa cases. U.S. law does not authorize the refusal of visas based solely on political statements or views if those statements or views would be lawful in the United States,” it said in a statement to CNN. “Visas may be denied only on grounds set out in U.S. law.”
Ashrawi had visited the United States regularly to attend conferences and negotiations, as well as visits with family who live here. “I have been coming to the States, as you know, since the late 1960s,” Ashrawi said, “but still, this administration decided that I was not welcome. And I thought it was rather petty and vindictive…because there is no real reason to deny me a visa unless it is the fact that they don’t like my criticism of this administration—of their positions, of their illegal unilateral actions, and of their fictitious peace plan.”
Among the actions she deems illegal are Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the end of U.S. support for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides relief for Palestinian refugees. Ashrawi said that Trump’s administration “took unilateral actions, destroyed their credibility and the prospect of peace, and then they blame the Palestinians because there is no peace process.” Ashrawi criticized the decision to “close down the American Consulate General in Jerusalem, which was established in 1844 as a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians,” she said. “There was no state of Israel in 1844. So in a sense…they are not just trying to distort our future. They are trying to forge our past because we did have diplomatic relations.”
Ashrawi went on to categorize these actions as confrontations and assaults on the Palestinian people. “It’s an aggression. They didn’t declare war, they just started acting unilaterally and illegally. In a sense, they turned this into a situation of total hostility,” she said. Ashrawi argued against the claim that has been made by Jared Kushner and others that the Palestinian people simply want a better life while the Palestinian leadership’s focus on statehood hinders peace processes. “This leadership, President Mahmoud Abbas in particular, has been extremely flexible and cooperative and malleable, and he was the one who started all these discussions with this administration,” she said. According to Ashrawi, Trump’s “defense and collusion with Israel turned them into part of the occupation.”
Regarding the upcoming “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop, hosted by the Kingdom of Bahrain in partnership with the U.S. and scheduled to take place on June 25 and 26 in Manama, a White House spokesperson told The New Yorker that the conference will focus on improving and investing in infrastructure and industry, laying the economic foundation for a peace plan. Ashrawi said that the “title of the workshop is a misnomer,” explaining how addressing the economic situation merely evades the more critical issues. “You totally ignore the political and legal dimensions which are the real issues and you say alright, let’s carry out some cosmetic changes,” she said, arguing that Israeli officials are simply throwing money at the problem instead of getting to the root of it. Ashrawi described the workshop as an attempt to “integrate Israel within the region, within the Arab world, economically, without Israel withdrawing from the territories it occupied,” she said. “This is attempting to create new terms of reference to legitimize a reality which is illegal.”
She also criticized the conference’s lead organizer, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner. In reference to his recent interview on HBO’s Axios, Ashrawi noted Kushner’s avoidance of the term “occupation.” She said, “they’ve been very busy…replacing [the term ‘occupation’] with ideological jargon,” going on to further categorize Kushner’s statements as “outdated,” “colonial” and lacking a true understanding of the Palestinian issue and people. “Palestine was a very vibrant intellectual artistic center before 1948. Look at the literary movements, the artistic movements, the educational centers and so on in Palestine,” she said. “We were a people living on our land, with a country, with aspirations, with tremendous potential to develop. Now, we were rudely disrupted…So the issue is not whether we deserve our rights. Of course we deserve our rights.”
Ashrawi commented on the upcoming Democratic primary elections, saying that, as “the electorate becomes more and more aware of the Palestinian question, it has become a test for many people.” Ashrawi expressed hope for the 2020 contenders, noting that “I find these candidates extremely courageous, but also people of principle…There is a greater confluence of voices, approaching maybe from different angles, but understanding the need to stop the excesses of the Israeli occupation.”
In her final comments, Ashrawi touched on the continuing eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem by the Israeli government. According to Ashrawi, this is part of a series of policies aimed at driving Palestinians out of East Jerusalem. Ashrawi believes that the Israeli policy holds that “if a house was lived in by Jews before 1948 or in the 1930s, then this house had to be given to the Jews regardless of whether the Palestinians bought it or not,” she said. “If we use that same logic, we used to own more than 93 percent of historical Palestine. Will they give us back all our lands and all our houses that they took?”