WASHINGTON – Inside a brick building on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown,amidst small shops and restaurants,sits the General Delegation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization,the closest thing Palestine has to an embassy.
Unlike a typical embassy in Washington,usually designed in styles traditional to the country,the General Delegation office is styled like any other office building,but with a large red,black,white and green Palestine flag hanging from the top,too high for most passersby or passing cars to see.
The General Delegation office is in a tricky situation. Because Palestine is not recognized by the United States as a state,the office doesn’t receive full diplomatic privileges,and it can’t technically call itself an embassy.
Regardless,the office is run by Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat,the chief representative of the office,who says his duties are similar to that of any other ambassador in Washington – meaning he’s stationed in Washington,maintaining relationships,while reporting to Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
As foreign officials clamor for a cease-fire in the Middle East and Israeli troops continue their ground assault on the Gaza Strip,Areikat,54,is hoping for a lull in the violence.
Areikat’s office is large,with several chairs and a couch in the corner. His desk is tidy,and his office contains photos of him with world leaders,among them President George W. Bush.
After two weeks of nonstop aerial rocket fire between Israel and Hamas,Israel announced it was initiating a ground invasion into Gaza on Thursday in an attempt to halt the Palestinians from firing rockets into Israel.
Even though Hamas rejected Egypt’s proposed cease-fire July 15,Areikat said the next day that finding a more suitable solution that leads to a more permanent cease-fire is a top priority.
Gazans,who are warned not to leave their homes during airstrikes,reportedly used the brief lull that followed Egypt’s proposal to stock up on food and supplies. Rocket fire picked up afterward.
Media outlets have reported that more than 1,600 Palestinians have been injured and almost 500 Palestinians have been killed as a result of the fighting,but Areikat said Hamas turned down the cease-fire because it wants a long-term solution that would lead to freeing people in the Gaza Strip.
“They don’t want a short fix,” he said. “They don’t want it to be ceasing fire for ceasing fire or quiet for quiet. It is a top priority to cease-fire,but at the same time we want to address the root causes of this,which is,in our view,the continued Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip.”
Part of the reason the Palestinian casualty number is so steep is that Israelis target members of Hamas,but many civilians get caught in the line of fire.
Despite the number of Palestinian injuries and casualties,Areikat said the Palestinian government isn’t to blame,in part because it has limited resources.
Unlike Israel,Areikat said Palestine is unable to provide early warnings of rocket fire to civilians,and officials don’t have proper anti-missile defenses. Israel has the Iron Dome to ward of rockets and dozens of bomb shelters,but the Palestinian territories have few bomb shelters and no elaborate anti-missile defenses.
“We are the vulnerable party in this conflict because we don’t have the means to neither warn our people in advance nor to ask them to move out before missiles hit them,” he said. “So I wouldn’t put the blame on the Palestinian government or the authority there because they are trying their best to provide services given the current circumstances.”
He said many hospitals are overcrowded and running out of supplies.
A cease-fire hasn’t come sooner,Arekiat said,because the solution would entail each side’s concerns being noted and living conditions being improved.
“The warring sides want to salvage political gains,objectives out of this confrontation,and in the process,people get killed,” he said. “Everybody knows that the civilian population of the Gaza city is paying a heavy price. I think it is a part of the political dynamics to try to maximize their objectives before a cease-fire takes place.”
Areikat said that Palestine is “never a match to Israel,militarily,” so the conflict will have to be solved through political means,rather than violence.
In a recent press conference,President Barack Obama said he was “deeply concerned” about the risks of escalation and the rising number of civilian deaths,adding that while he supports Israel’s right to defend itself,he is “hopeful that Israel will continue to approach this process in a way that minimizes civilian casualties.”
Secretary of State John Kerry has been in Egypt this week to discuss possible peace solutions. On Monday,the State Department said the U.S. will provide $47 million in relief aid for Gaza.
“That is why it now has to be our focus,and the focus of the international community to bring about a cease-fire that ends the fighting and that can stop the deaths of innocent civilians – both in Gaza and in Israel,” Obama said.
Areikat has occasionally run into former Israeli ambassadors to the U.S.,but it has only been in passing and he’s never had a meeting with Israel’s top diplomat.
Prior to serving as ambassador,Areikat had several different positions with the PLO,including deputy head and coordinator general at the Negotiations Affairs Department and director-general.
Reach reporter Xander Zellner at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.