RAMALLAH/GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian leaders accused the Trump administration of punishing them with one hand and offering to reward them with the other, as protesters turned out in the West Bank and Gaza on Wednesday to demonstrate against a U.S. economic peace plan.
At a U.S.-led conference in Bahrain U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner urged Palestinian leaders boycotting the event to think outside the “traditional box” and consider the $50 billion plan to boost the Palestinian and neighboring economies.
The event drew fiery criticism both within the Palestinian territories, where demonstrations broke out for a second day, and across the wider region, where many Arabs took aim at officials for taking part.
Palestinian officials said it was Trump who had inflicted further hardship on Palestinians, cutting hundreds of millions in aid to humanitarian organizations across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza.
“If the U.S. is so concerned about Palestinian well-being, then why did they carry out these punitive measures against us?,” senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi said in Ramallah.
“Why did they target Palestinian infrastructure? Why did they stop scholarships to Palestinian students?,” she asked.
In August last year, Washington announced an end to all U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that assists Palestinian refugees. The U.S. was UNRWA’s biggest donor by far up to that point, giving it $364 million in 2017.
And in February, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) ceased all assistance to the Palestinians, to whom it provided $268 million in 2017.
The U.S. cuts were widely seen as a way of putting pressure on the Palestinian leadership to re-engage with the White House, which it has boycotted since Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017.
“The same team that cut 350 million dollars of aid to refugee camps ... (goes) to Manama to say we have a brilliant plan to bring Palestinians a new chance, a new opportunity,” Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat said on Tuesday in Jericho.
“Why would Palestinians say no to such (a) plan?,” he added, mockingly.
Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the event at Manama’s luxury Four Seasons hotel, where international bureaucrats enjoyed cocktails and delicate pastries, mingling with Arab businessmen sporting gold Rolex watches.
Some Gulf Arab states, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, voiced qualified support for Kushner’s plan, while Qatar sent top officials but made no public comment. Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab states with a peace deal with Israel, sent deputy ministers.
Many Arabs slammed their governments for taking part, describing the event as a sell-off of Palestinians’ rights without them present.
“The participation of Arab and Islamic countries in this conference of shame in Manama is unfortunate. ..Political courtesy does not justify this participation,” Qatar University professor of political sociology Majed al-Ansari said on Twitter.
Bahrain’s main opposition group, the outlawed Shi’ite Muslim al-Wefaq party, said hosting the event had brought shame on their country’s rulers, while Kuwait’s parliament said it would reject anything that comes out of the event.
Washington is hoping that wealthy Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar will bankroll much of the $50 billion plan, another potential sticking point unpopular with some opposed to the deal.
“The last thing we can imagine as Qatari citizens is for the wealth of our country and nation to contribute to the displacement of another Arab people,” Qatari Youth Against Normalisation, a Qatari youth group, said in a statement.
Former Egyptian football star Mohamed Aboutrika took aim at FIFA head Gianni Infantino, who spoke in Manama about developing a sports sector in the Palestinian territories to drive economic growth.
“Thank you to everyone who boycotted this auction...the presence of the head of FIFA is a major question mark...our holy sites are not for sale,” Aboutrika wrote on Twitter.
More than 1,500 km (930 miles) away in Gaza, where over half of the enclave’s two million people live in poverty, Palestinians criticized the Arab businessmen who attended for siding with the United States and Israel.
“Capitalists do not think of the poor,” said Abdel-Rahim Nateel, 62, who spent most of his life in the Beach refugee camp in northern Gaza.
“Let them come and give aid to the hungry people, make projects, ask Israel not to attack us... let them give us our state on the 1967 borders and we do not want anything else from them.”
Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza on Wednesday, burning posters of Trump and his close ally, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame,” read one banner.
In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, demonstrations against Bahrain were light for a second day. Some Palestinians voiced a sense of exhaustion about peace efforts and promises of cash and prosperity.
“This conference is just like all others from the past, Arab conferences, American conferences. All of them have been at the Palestinians’ expense,” said Hamdallah Qasem, 72, who lives in Ramallah.
Their own leadership was not exempt from criticism, however. At an Israeli military checkpoint separating Palestinian villages from the neighboring Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, several Palestinian day laborers said President Mahmoud Abbas was hurting the local economy by boycotting the conference.
“If he was struggling like the rest of our people, maybe he would participate. As long as boycotting doesn’t hit his wallet, he will never change his position,” said Nasser, who declined to give his last name for fear of retribution.
Yara Hawari, a policy analyst based in Ramallah, said the low turnout at protests was due to a sense of fatigue at international initiatives from which they saw little chance of changing their situation.
“There are certain topics that mobilize Palestinians more than others - like Jerusalem. This ‘economic peace’ is just more of the same. They see it as empty talk,” Hawari said.
Reporting by Rami Ayyub in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington in Dubai, Ahmed Haggagy in Kuwait City, Eric Knecht in Doha, and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Editing by Stephen Farrell, William Maclean and Hugh Lawson