WASHINGTON: In a further step to strengthen bilateral relations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the need for reform in the Palestinian Authority in a phone call on Monday with President Mahmoud Abbas, the State Department said.
President Joe Biden has sought to repair ties weakened when his predecessor, President Donald Trump, slashed aid to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza and closed a US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The Biden administration has restored aid and pledged to reopen the consulate over Israeli objections, while urging Abbas, 86, to change several policies including payments his self-rule authority makes to Palestinians held in Israeli jails.
Briefing reporters on Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price did not mention the prisoner stipends but said Blinken and Abbas discussed “the need for reform within the Palestinian Authority.”
The two also discussed “the need to improve quality of life for the Palestinian people in tangible ways,” Price said.
In a readout of the phone call, Abbas’ office did not mention any discussion of reform within the authority, which exercises limited self-rule in West Bank territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.
Good discussion with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas today. We discussed strengthening the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, and the need for Palestinian Authority reform and for Palestinians & Israelis alike to enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, & prosperity.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) January 31, 2022
Abbas told Blinken that Israel must “stop the abuse of prisoners and ... the withholding of taxes.” Israel in 2018 began deducting the value of the prisoner stipends from taxes it collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf and transfers to it monthly.
Israel and the US say the stipends, dispersed monthly to prisoners, their relatives and the families of Palestinians killed for allegedly carrying out attacks, encourage further violence.
The Palestinians consider them a form of welfare for inmates and families they regard as national heroes.
Meanwhile, two members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation asked the Biden administration Monday to investigate how a Palestinian-American who lived in Milwaukee before moving back to his home village died at a West Bank checkpoint.
Omar Assad, 78, died after Israeli troops stopped him at a checkpoint in his native village of Jiljilya during the early morning hours of Jan. 12, according to family members and media reports.
Assad’s nephew, Assad Assad, said others who were detained at the checkpoint told family members that the soldiers dragged Assad out of his car, threw him to the ground and shackled his hands and feet with zip ties, then fled after he died on the spot.
The Israeli military has said Omar was detained after resisting an inspection and later released, implying he was alive. It’s unclear exactly when he died. An autopsy performed by Palestinian doctors that became public on Thursday determined the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by “external violence.”
Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, an Israeli military spokesman, said Assad’s death remains under investigation and that “actions will be taken if wrongdoing is found.”
Assad was born in Jiljilya but spent about 40 years in the United States. He became a US citizen before he returned to his home village in 2009 to retire with his wife, Nazmia, his nephew told The Associated Press.
US State Department officials have said they’re seeking clarification about the events leading up to Assad’s death.
US Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Gwen Moore sent a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to launch an investigation into Assad’s death and whether the soldiers involved used equipment procured with American aid.
“We strongly support human rights and the rule of law as the foundation of United States foreign policy,” Baldwin and Moore wrote. “As a Palestinian American, Mr. Assad deserves the full protections afforded US citizens living abroad and his family deserves answers.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday that he hadn’t seen the request from Baldwin and Moore and the agency hasn’t seen a final report from Israeli officials.
“We continue to support an investigation that is thorough and comprehensive into the circumstances of the incident and we welcome receiving additional information as soon as possible,” Price said.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six Day War in 1967. Assad Assad said his uncle and aunt left Jiljilya for Chicago in 1969 in hopes of finding jobs. They moved to Milwaukee in 1974 and prospered, opening convenience stores and a restaurant, he said.
They were among dozens of Jiljilya residents who have returned to the village over the years to build retirement homes, Assad Assad said.
(With Reuters and AP)