US vows to reopen Jerusalem consulate, pledges aid for Gaza

The announcements signalled a clean break with US policy under former president Donald Trump who had shuttered the diplomatic mission for Palestinians in 2019 and slashed aid to the Palestinian Authority.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem, on 25 May 2021. Picture: Ronen Zvulun/AFP

JERUSALEM - Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed Tuesday to rebuild US relations with Palestinians by reopening a consulate in Jerusalem and giving millions in aid to help the war-ravaged Gaza Strip.

The announcements signalled a clean break with US policy under former president Donald Trump who had shuttered the diplomatic mission for Palestinians in 2019 and slashed aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Blinken's visit, part of a wider Mideast tour, comes after Friday's truce ended 11 days of heavy Israeli bombing of Gaza and rocket fire out of the enclave on Israel, as tensions simmer in annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

The top diplomat of US President Joe Biden reiterated support for Israel's right to defend itself against rocket attacks by the Islamist group Hamas, which he said must not benefit from the aid effort.

But Blinken also stressed "the commitment of the United States to rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom opportunity and dignity".

That language signalled a significant change in tone from Trump's administration, whose Middle East peace plan was rejected by Palestinians as heavily biased in Israel's favour.

"The United States will be moving forward with the process of reopening our consulate in Jerusalem," Blinken said after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah.

A senior Palestinian official told AFP a US-Palestinian committee was also discussing how to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington, which was closed during the Trump administration.

MILLIONS IN AID

Blinken is on a tour that will next take him to Egypt, which brokered the truce, then Jordan.

He promised financial aid to Palestinians and emergency assistance to help rebuild the impoverished Gaza Strip, as well as efforts to shore up the ceasefire between Israel and the enclave's rulers Hamas.

"The United States will notify Congress of our intention to provide $75 million in additional development and economic assistance to the Palestinians in 2021," he said.

That was to come on top of $5.5 million dollars in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and about $32 million for an emergency humanitarian appeal by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, he said.

He reiterated that the United States - which considers Hamas a terrorist group - "will work with partners to ensure that Hamas does not benefit from these reconstruction efforts".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile warned that Israel remained ever ready to defend itself.

"If Hamas breaks the calm and attacks Israel, our response will be very powerful," he said.

Abbas said his administration was ready to "work directly to help with the reconstruction of Gaza", while stressing his support for "peaceful and popular resistance" by Palestinians against Israeli policies.

'LOTS OF HARD WORK'

The latest military escalation started after clashes in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, which is also revered by Jews as the Temple Mount.

Israeli forces had moved in on Palestinian worshippers there, towards the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

They had also sought to quell protests against the threatened eviction of Palestinian families from homes in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah to make way for Jewish settlers.

"There's lots of hard work ahead to restore hope, respect and some trust across the communities," Blinken said.

Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire on Gaza killed 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, and wounded over 1,900 people in 11 days of conflict from 10 May, the health ministry in Gaza says.

Rocket and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian national and two Thai workers, medics say. Some 357 people in Israel were wounded.

The recent war has sparked unrest across Israel, with mob violence between Israeli Jews and Arabs, as well as clashes in the occupied West Bank.

Peace talks have stalled since 2014, including over the status of east Jerusalem and Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

PALESTINIAN SHOT DEAD

Israel on Tuesday began allowing humanitarian aid to pass into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing, saying it would permit daily convoys.

Patients will be able to travel in and out of Gaza for treatment, and fishing off the enclave's coast can resume, said COGAT, the Israeli military body that administers civilian affairs in Palestinian territories.

But tensions simmer in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Hours before Biden's arrival, Israeli forces killed a Palestinian man during an arrest raid on the Amara refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank, Palestinian and Israeli security sources said.

In Jerusalem, an attacker Monday stabbed two young Israeli men including a soldier before police shot him dead. Palestinian news agency WAFA identified him as a 17-year-old Palestinian high school student.

Israeli police, who operate in east Jerusalem and across Israel, said late Sunday they had arrested 1,550 suspects over the past two weeks in connection with the "violent events".

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