U.S. Urged to Cut Aid to Palestinian Authority Until It Frees Dual American Citizen Who Sold Property to Jews

By Patrick Goodenough | January 3, 2019 | 4:21 AM EST

Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas spearks at the U.N. General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – The Palestinian Authority is reportedly considering handing over to the U.S. a dual American citizen who was sentenced earlier this week to life imprisonment with hard labor for selling a property in Jerusalem to Jewish buyers.

Israel’s public broadcaster Kan quoted an official in Mahmoud Abbas’s P.A. as saying the self-rule administration wanted to rid itself of a situation that has “become a burden.”

The plight of Issam Aqel has stoked outrage in some quarters, with one U.S.-based Jewish organization saying the U.S. should withhold all aid to the P.A. until it releases him.

Major human rights groups that frequently comment on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, however, have been silent about the case.

His sentencing Monday in a P.A. court in Ramallah has drawn fresh attention to a controversial P.A. law banning all sales of Palestinian-owned property to Jews, with offenders risking the death penalty.

Aqel (also Akel), a 53-year-old resident of east Jerusalem, was arrested by P.A. security forces in October, apparently while visiting Ramallah. The P.A. has no legal authority in Jerusalem, but wants at least part of the city as the capital of an envisaged future independent state.

The official P.A. news agency WAFA reported that the Ramallah Grand Criminal Court sentenced a man with the initials I.A. on Monday “to life in prison with hard labor after it found him guilty of selling Palestinian land to a foreign country.”

The P.A. judiciary office said the accused man had been convicted of “trying to sever a part of the Palestinian territory and annex it to a foreign state.”

“The conviction and life sentence of a Palestinian American for allegedly trying to sell land to a Jewish buyer underscores the Palestinian Authority’s racist and reprehensible policies directed toward Jews,” said Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel.

“The prohibition against selling real estate to Jews is the epitome of anti-Semitism and the embodiment of outright bigotry.”

Weiss urged the U.S. to suspend aid to the P.A. and called on the international community to shun the P.A. until the conviction is overturned and Aqel is freed.

“Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority cannot expect handouts from the U.S. while they exploit an American by locking him up and throwing away the key for purportedly entering into a real estate deal with a Jewish counterpart,” he said.

In November, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman called Aqel’s detention “antithetical to the values of the U.S. and all those who advocate the cause of peaceful coexistence” and said the U.S. demanded his immediate release.

Responding to queries on Wednesday, a U.S. government official said, “We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen has been sentenced by a Palestinian court. When a U.S. citizen is incarcerated abroad, the U.S. government works to provide all appropriate consular assistance.”

The P.A. considers any land sales to Jews as treason – part of a plot to deny the Palestinians an independent state.

Hours after Aqel was sentenced, Abbas attended an event in Ramallah marking the anniversary of the founding of his Fatah organization and declared that Jerusalem is “the eternal capital of the Palestinian state and it is not for sale,” WAFA reported.

The news agency said Abbas had said that “the Palestinian leadership, along with the Palestinian people and the free people of the world, will never accept and will not allow anyone to sell Jerusalem, or allow U.S. President Donald Trump to sell it to Israel.”

Israel earlier responded to Aqel’s arrest by trying to pressurize the P.A. to release him, by detaining several P.A. officials linked to the case.

Meanwhile a Jerusalem-based non-governmental organization, the International Legal Forum, says it has been trying to alert international human rights groups and European Union governments to Aqel’s plight, but has drawn little interest.

The Jerusalem Post reports that the ILF sent letters to the E.U. and British and German governments – all funders of the P.A. – as well as to unspecified international human rights groups.

After Aqel’s sentencing this week, the ILF renewed calls for support for a petition urging E.U. countries and rights groups worldwide “to wake up and raise their voice in condemnation.”

“We cannot tolerate the continuing incarceration and torture of an innocent man whose sole ‘crime’ is doing business with Jews,” the group said in an earlier statement. “Every moment that passes can cost Issam his life.”

Searches Thursday on the websites of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, B’Tselem and CODEPINK brought up no references to Issam Aqel.

‘Racist and religious bigotry’

The law on land sales is based on a statute dating back to the early 1960s, when the area known as the West Bank was under Jordanian occupation.

Several years after the P.A. was established under the Oslo Accords, then-P.A. Justice Minister Freih Abu Medein announced in 1997 that the sale of land to Jews was a criminal offense under P.A. law, and was punishable by death.

That statement saw negotiations between Israel and the P.A. stall, and some U.S. lawmakers demanded that the Clinton administration end financial assistance until Palestinian leaders denounce what then-House international relations committee chairman Benjamin Gilman described as a “racist” death penalty policy.

“To assert that an entire group of people is ‘off limits’ in transactions with another for any reason is exactly the kind of racist and religious bigotry that led to the Nazi extermination camps, and cannot be tolerated,” the New York Republican was quoted as saying on May 14, 1997. “If this proposal becomes effective, the next step could be to dictate that Arabs may not sell produce or other goods to Jews.”

In the late 1990s several Arab men suspected of selling real estate to Israelis were found murdered under circumstances that raised suspicion of P.A. involvement.

In one April 1998 incident, a building contractor named Mohammed Ismail Ankawi called a family member from his cellphone, saying he had been summoned to the P.A. intelligence offices in Ramallah, had gone there, and was now heading home. Half an hour later his body was found alongside a road near the town. He had been shot nine times.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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