The Palestinian Authority (PA) plans to extradite a Palestinian-American it convicted for selling Jerusalem land to Israeli Jews, bowing to US and Israeli pressure.
Issam Aqel, a resident of the Beit Hanina neighbourhood of Jerusalem, was sentenced earlier this week to life imprisonment for selling land to Israeli Jews without the permission of Palestinian authorities. The Higher Offences Court in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, convicted Aqel of “attempting to sever parts of Palestinian land and annex it to a foreign state,” handing him a “life sentence with hard labour”.
Yet today the PA appears to have bowed to months of US pressure to extradite Aqel – who is a dual Palestinian-American national – with the US and the PA agreeing Aqel will be sent to America at the end of legal proceedings. His lawyer is expected to file an appeal against the court’s ruling, the Times of Israel reported, citing a senior Palestinian official who spoke to Israel’s public broadcaster Kan on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli daily added that though many details of Aqel’s extradition have yet to be finalised, the Palestinian official claimed the PA was eager to get Aqel “off its hands”, saying: “We want to finish this saga. He has become a burden upon us.”
The US has put pressure on the PA to release Aqel since he was first arrested in October. In November, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman took to Twitter to condemn Aqel’s imprisonment, saying: “Akel’s [sic] incarceration is antithetical to the values of the US & to all who advocate the cause of peaceful coexistence, we demand his immediate release.”
According to conservative US news site CNSNews, Israel lobby groups have also pushed the US to pressure the PA, with one group – the National Council of Young Israel – urging the US to suspend aid to the PA until Aqel was freed. The group’s president, Farley Weiss, said that “[PA President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority cannot expect handouts from the US while they exploit an American by locking him up and throwing away the key”.
Israel has supported the US in this pressure, with the Israeli Civil Administration – which administers the occupied Palestinian territories – in November freezing security coordination with the PA in Jerusalem in protest against Aqel’s detention. A week previously, Israel had withdrawn the VIP travel card of Palestinian Attorney General Ahmed Barrak, after he ordered an amendment to Aqel’s detention. Israel also detained the PA’s Jerusalem governor, Adnan Ghaith, over his efforts to combat the transfer of Jerusalem properties to Israeli Jews. Ghaith was eventually released on 2 December but was banned from entering the occupied West Bank for six months.
Relations between the US and the PA grew increasingly strained in 2018 after a string of punitive measures taken by the US administration under President Donald Trump, including cutting funding to UNRWA, threatening to withhold aid unless a peace deal with Israel is agreed, downgrading its Jerusalem Consulate and unilaterally declaring the city Israel’s capital.