JERUSALEM: Palestinian Hatem Hussein Abu Rayala points at his house which was demolished again by Israeli forces in the neighborhood of Issawiya yesterday. – AFP

JERUSALEM: More than 400 European parliamentarians have urged leaders to use Joe Biden’s new presidency as an opportunity to stop what they term Israel’s “de-facto annexation” of the occupied West Bank. A letter seen by AFP was signed by 400 European politicians from across a range of backgrounds who serve in national legislatures and senates or in the European parliament.

Addressed to European foreign ministers and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, the letter argues that “the Biden administration presents a chance to correct course” in Middle East diplomacy. “The previous US administration left the conflict farther away from peace than ever,” it added. Former president Donald Trump broke with much of the international consensus concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital” and moved Washington’s embassy there, infuriating the Palestinians who claim the eastern part of the city as the capital of their future state. The State Department under Trump also said it no longer viewed Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank as illegal. Trump’s widely criticized Middle East peace plan earmarked parts of the West Bank for Israeli annexation.

While the Trump plan is dead, settlement expansion continues, with Israel regularly approving the construction of new homes for Jews on occupied Palestinian territory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, agreed to pause West Bank annexation plans in exchange for the diplomatic normalization with the United Arab Emirates.

“However, developments on the ground clearly point to a reality of rapidly progressing de facto annexation, especially through accelerated settlement expansion and demolitions of Palestinian structures,” said the letter. “Europe must work with the Biden administration, countries in the region and the parties on the ground to prevent unilateral action undermining the possibility of peace, advance the rights and security of all people under Israel’s effective control.”

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank began following the 1967 Six Day War, the conflict that also saw it seize control of east Jerusalem, an area it later annexed. The European Union insists any viable Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders – a condition rejected across much of the Israeli political spectrum.

Biden has indicated his administration will restore US opposition to West Bank settlements expansion, but he does not intend to move the US embassy back to Tel Aviv. The letter also said that Gaza, the Israeli-blockaded Mediterranean enclave, “remains at risk of violent escalation at any moment”, blaming both the blockade and “intra-Palestinian divisions”.

Hamas Islamists who have controlled Gaza since 2007 are long-standing rivals of Fatah secularists who dominate the Palestinian Authority, but the two sides are engaged in a unity push ahead of Palestinian elections called for later this year. “Palestinian reconciliation and elections across all the Palestinian territory is vital, including as a basis for ending the isolation of Gaza,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, Israel’s president yesterday formally received the first-ever ambassador from the United Arab Emirates, following last year’s historic agreement between the countries to normalize ties. UAE envoy Mohamed Al-Khaja, who arrived in Israel earlier yesterday, delivered his credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a ceremony in Jerusalem.

After greeting Khaja in Arabic, Rivlin said: “The entire Israeli people welcome you with joy. This will be your most important mission – to welcome the hands reaching out to you… treaties are signed by leaders, but real, sustained peace is made between peoples, face to face.” Khaja said he would “work tirelessly to strengthen the political ties between our two countries, in the service of our peoples and regional stability.”

The UAE was the first country to agree to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state under the Abraham Accords, a pact brokered by former US president Donald Trump. The agreement made the UAE only the third majority Arab country to form official ties with Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have subsequently joined the Abraham Accords.

The agreements broke with longstanding Arab consensus that there should be no normalization with Israel until it reaches a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians. Earlier yesterday, Khaja met Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi in Jerusalem, who wished him “success” in his “historic mission”. Noting the historic nature of his appointment, Khaja said he was “very proud and honored to be the first Emirati ambassador to the State of Israel”. “My mission here is to foster and develop this relationship,” he added. “We hope this will bring peace and prosperity to the people of the Middle East.”

Israel opened its UAE embassy in January, with veteran diplomat Eitan Naeh heading the Abu Dhabi mission. Israel and the UAE have already signed treaties on direct flights and visa-free travel, along with accords on investment protection, science and technology. Today, Khaja is scheduled to visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial and education center. – AFP