US downgrade of Palestinian mission to 'take effect on Monday'

While US says merger of its offices is meant to improve 'efficiency', Palestinians see it as another move against them.

    The US embassy officially opened in Jerusalem last May on the same day Palestinians commemorate 70 years since the Nakba [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]
    The US embassy officially opened in Jerusalem last May on the same day Palestinians commemorate 70 years since the Nakba [File: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

    The United States is expected to move ahead with a downgrade of its mission to the Palestinians on Monday by merging its Jerusalem consulate with the embassy to Israel, a US official has said.

    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday said the announcement to merge the two offices in October was intended to improve "efficiency and effectiveness" and did not constitute a change in policy.

    But Palestinian leaders have seen the decision as yet another move against them by US President Donald Trump's administration, which they froze contact with after his 2017 decision recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

    A date for the merger of the consulate into the embassy had not been announced, but a State Department official told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity that it "is expected to take place on March 4".

    The Jerusalem consulate general, which has acted independently as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians since the Oslo accords of the 1990s, will be replaced by a new Palestinian affairs unit within the embassy.

    PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat said at the time of the announcement last year: "It [the merger] has nothing to do with efficiency and a lot to do with pleasing an ideological US team that is willing to disband the foundations of the international system."

    Placing the consulate under the authority of the embassy could be seen as an American recognition of Israeli control over the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

    The controversial US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has been a supporter of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

    Friedman previously expressed doubt over a potential two-state solution, which has traditionally been the bedrock of US diplomacy, and had long called for moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

    The State Department official could not confirm reports that the consul general's residence in Jerusalem would eventually become the home for the US ambassador as part of the embassy's move to the disputed city, which occurred last May.

    Located near occupied East Jerusalem's Old City, it has been the home of the consul general since 1912, while the US permanent diplomatic presence in the city was established in 1857.

    Trump, who is expected to release his long-awaited peace plan in the coming months, has also cut more than $500m in Palestinian aid in a bid to force its leaders to negotiate.

    Palestinian leaders call it an attempt to blackmail them into accepting a plan aimed at wiping out their cause, and have labelled the US as a "dishonest broker".

    The status of Jerusalem - home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians - is one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    Though Israel claims Jerusalem is the capital of its state, its jurisdiction over the city is not recognised internationally.

    After occupying the city's eastern part in the 1967 war, Israel unilaterally annexed the territory and proclaimed it as its capital. The Palestinians, however, see the city as the capital of their future state.

    Trump's decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem broke with decades of international consensus that the status of the city must first be decided upon through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies