There have been attempts to shutter the PLO presence in the U.S. ever since it opened a Washington, DC-based Information Office in 1978. But it wasn’t until 1987 that such attempts began to gain steam when Congress adopted the Anti-Terrorism Act, in which it proclaimed the PLO a terrorist organization—this law is in effect to this day and has been the subject of suspensions, waiver provisions, and extensions throughout various U.S. administrations since Reagan’s.
In all the commentary on the closure of the PLO office in Washington, little has been said about what it actually means, not only in terms of Palestinian-American political and diplomatic relations, but also in terms of the services this office has provided to U.S. citizens and businesses.
It is instructive to recall Edward Said’s seminal work “Permission to Narrate,” published two years after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Said underlines the shared Israeli-American political motive for the invasion: “to destroy Palestinian nationalism and institutions in Lebanon to make it easier to destroy them in the West Bank and Gaza.’” This was only part of a campaign to silence the Palestinians’ narrative and deny their existence. As Said notes, the 1982 war was directed at “the inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality, and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination.”
Thirty-six years later, the closure of the PLO office in Washington, when viewed in light of the Trump administration’s recent policies vis-à-vis UNRWA and Jerusalem, echoes Said’s sobering analysis: “To reduce Palestinian existence as much as possible.” Indeed, the closure of the PLO office is yet another reminder of the long assault by Israel and the U.S., its chief ally, on those elements that constitute the Palestinian narrative: institutions, culture, history, law, and language, to name a few.
The role of the Consular Affairs section at the PLO Delegation is illustrative. Hakam Takash, who served as the Palestinian Consul to the U.S., spoke to Palestine Square about his role and the likely implications of shuttering consular services. Takash processed an average of 3,600 requests annually for U.S. citizens and businesses. These included a wide range of commercial and personal status requests pertaining to copy and intellectual property rights, inheritance paperwork, identity verification, and dealing with Palestinian-Americans who seek assistance.
These tasks seem mundane, but they often served as the focal point of contact between U.S. citizens and Palestine. For instance, it was through Takash’s desk that U.S. citizens of Palestinian descent could process any paperwork necessary for their family ties back home, such as land ownership deeds as well as business and banking registration.
Moreover, Takash’s consular work enabled U.S. businesses to sell their products in Palestine. U.S. pharmaceutical companies could sell medications in Palestine only after Takash verified their U.S. Food and Drug Administration license. In the absence of these services, such companies can no longer introduce their products into the Palestinian market. By the same token, U.S. businesses that wish to protect their rights will no longer be able to file complaints in Palestinian courts against local businesses, as was the case with a “Stars & Bucks” café in Ramallah and a “Clean-X” manufacturer in Hebron.
The role of the PLO’s consular affairs section went beyond paperwork to touch the lives of many Palestinians in the U.S.
In one instance, Takash was closely involved in the tragic case of Palestinian Bennington College student Hadil Marzouq, whose body was found at the First Marble Quarry in Vermont. Takash maintained close contact throughout the ordeal with her parents, school, and local authorities until her body was returned to Bethlehem.
In another case, two Palestinian refugees who arrived in the U.S. from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria sought help from the PLO’s consular affairs section to ensure that their young daughter could leave the camp and join them. After many hours communicating with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the daughter was issued a Palestinian travel document without which she could not have left Syria.
Equally important, the work of the PLO’s consular section in Washington has informed judicial practice over the years in Palestine. It was through a request filed at the Washington office that a Sharia court convened a panel to assess the inheritance share of a transgendered Palestinian. Similarly, the right of Palestinian women to divorce has emanated from numerous cases of Palestinian women seeking to divorce while living abroad, including in the U.S. Such particularly sensitive requests could not have been heard at local agencies. In this respect, Takash’s role has progressively pushed the conversation forward on a number of judicial issues in Palestine, owing to the diverse experiences of Palestinian-Americans.
None of these services are available any more in the U.S., where the number of Palestinian-Americans hovers around half a million, according to Takash’s estimation.
As Takash spoke with Palestine Square, it became alarmingly clear just how much Palestinian-Americans have lost with the closure of the PLO office in Washington and the absence of these services.
In one account after another, Takash pointed out that the need for this work will remain. He was prepared to discuss a number of mechanisms that would allow for retaining the consular affairs section at his last meeting with the Department of State in early September. However, it quickly became clear that this was not an option. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Palestine has announced that the Arab League Mission in Washington could serve as an alternative venue, provided the approval of the Department of State. A State Department official told Palestine Square when asked about the fate of the PLO’s consular services that the closure “means that the PLO office in Washington must cease operations and its staff may no longer be employed by the Office.”
In shuttering these services, the Trump administration has cut off any U.S. citizen, including Palestinian-Americans, from engaging with Palestine at the institutional level, which is part and parcel of the ongoing assault on Palestinian rights in the U.S. and elsewhere.
A little over a year after Said published “Permission to Narrate,” Alex Odeh of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was assassinated in the Fall of 1985 by three individuals, whom the FBI identified as closely tied to the Jewish Defense League.
But much has changed since then, and if the older generation of Palestinian-Americans feared engaging with the question of Palestine in the aftermath of that horrendous crime, today’s young Palestinian-Americans are at the forefront of grassroots activism and advocacy for Palestinian rights as they claim ownership of the rights and privileges U.S. citizenship grants them. In this respect, the closure of the PLO office in Washington can only be viewed as a wake-up call to unite, in spite of any political differences among Palestinian-Americans. Ultimately, as far as the Trump administration is concerned, these nuances are irrelevant. At the end of the day, their assault is aimed at Palestine and any constituent of Palestinian identity.