"Ahlan wa sahlan" is how Palestinians greet a guest. But these words of welcome will not be directed at Vice President Mike Pence, when he tours occupied Arab East Jerusalem’s holy sites next week. He is unwelcome.
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The image of him standing adoringly by as President Donald Trump declared a rapidly expanding and amorphous Jerusalem the capital of Israel is still fresh on every Palestinian’s mind.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, between December 6th, the date of the recognition announcement, and December 31st, 2017, Israeli occupation forces killed 14 Palestinians and injured over 3,600 others, by gas inhalation, rubber-coated bullets and live fire. Those protests and demonstrations show no signs of abating.
But where Pence stands has never been in doubt.
On the campaign trail, he marketed himself as a champion of the rights of Middle Eastern Christians in their struggle against violent extremism. At the same time, he appeared in ads aimed at U.S. citizens living in Israel and its illegal settlements, promising them that "Israel’s fight is our fight, Israel’s cause is our cause."
Where does that leave the Muslims and Christians of Palestine who since 1948 have been systematically driven from their homes and property?
Is Israel’s fight to ethnically cleanse them from the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, also the Trump-Pence fight?
Is Israel’s cause - to confiscate their land – also the Trump-Pence cause?
Apparently, Israel’s brand of violent extremism is not only unproblematic to Mike Pence, it is divinely ordained.
It would be unfair to credit the vice president with the seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy that came with Trump’s Jerusalem decision. Pence, however, like every good vice president who someday wants to be president, would very much like Trump’s dispensationalist-minded evangelical supporters to see him as their true lower-case messiah.
The festive photo op orchestrated for the recognition announcement, in which Pence appears flanked by Christmas trees as the Holy City was taken off the negotiating table, was clearly meant to send just this message.
In reality, the timing of the Jerusalem recognition wasn’t the work of Pence and his warped understanding of the Bible. It was this-worldly, not other-worldly: Just good, old fashioned, throw-the-Palestinians-under-the-bus politics, sugared with religious symbols and references to biblical history to make it go down easier with the base.
Keep in mind the timeline of political developments in the U.S. before the announcement. On December 1st, the special investigator on Russian interference with US elections, Robert Mueller, had just obtained a guilty plea from former Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn. In his plea, Flynn reportedly implicated Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, head of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
With impeachment and more indictments looming large over the president and his inner circle - described in detail in Michael Wolff’s tell-all book "Fire and Fury" - rallying right-wing media, evangelicals and powerful pro-Israel donors like Sheldon Adelson to the administration’s side became critically important.
True, the president had been under some pressure to execute on his campaign promise to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but he had put off such a move in order to re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. With the Flynn plea, however, he could wait no longer. And who better to share the spotlight with him than Vice President Pence, the poster child of evangelicals who had been scheduled to travel to Israel to speak before the Knesset in December 2017?
But taking Jerusalem off the negotiating table and killing the two-state solution is not enough to satiate hungry Trump-Pence supporters and donors. The red meat of the day is now destroying Palestinians as a national group along with their history, claims and rights.
To do this, the administration intends to slash most of its $300 million per year in funding it provides UNRWA, the UN agency established to provide food, childhood education and basic health care to five million registered Palestinian refugees. But UNWRA only exists after almost seven decades because Israel has refused to allow the refugees to exercise their right to return home and to restore their properties to them.
President Trump doesn’t seem to understand that Palestinian refugees and their legal rights cannot be made to disappear simply by defunding and destroying UNRWA. What will be achieved with this latest action is hundreds of thousands of impoverished families in the occupied Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria will go hungry and half a million children will be out of school and will become susceptible and/or succumb to preventable diseases and treatable illnesses from a lack of health care.
The fall out from this cruel and shortsighted action will not only be felt in countries hosting Palestinian refugees. It will be felt throughout the region and beyond.
So Vice President Pence will have to forgive Palestinian Christians and Muslims for not welcoming him into their homes and into their churches and mosques with the hospitality and warmth for which they are renowned. They’re a bit pre-occupied these days trying to survive, while resisting a military occupation that Pence, as a matter of faith, has whole-heartedly endorsed as his cause and fight.
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and Middle East Fellow at New America, based in Washington, D.C. Formerly, she was the coordinator and senior legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team. Twitter: @zahahassan