Palestinians say they won't be blackmailed by US move to close PLO office

RAMALLAH/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Palestinian officials expressed surprise on Saturday at a U.S. decision to close the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington unless the group enters peace negotiations with Israel, and said they would not surrender to blackmail.

A U.S. State Department official said that under legislation passed by Congress, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could not renew a certification that expired this month for the PLO office, "given certain statements made by the Palestinian leaders about the International Criminal Court."

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A Palestinian youth uses a slingshot to throw a stone towards Israeli security forces during clashes near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Hebron on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread and provoked fears of a new uprising. AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER (Photo credit should read HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth uses a sling shot to hurl stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread in recent days and provoked fears of a new uprising. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Masked Palestinian youths throw stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread in recent days and provoked fears of a new uprising. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian youths gesture and throw stones during clashes against Israeli forces at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread in recent days and provoked fears of a new uprising. His comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged a crackdown and Israel, in a show of force, demolished the homes of two Palestinians who carried out attacks last year. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth burns tires during clashes with Israeli security forces at the main entrance of the West Bank town of Bethlehem on October 6, 2015, following the funeral of 13-year-old Palestinian Abdel Rahman Abdullah. The Israeli army shot dead the Palestinian youth during clashes at a refugee camp near Bethlehem on October 5 as violence spiked in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. AFP PHOTO / MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinians throw stones towards the vehicles of Israeli security forces who search for the suspected Palestinian killers of a Jewish settler couple on October 6, 2015 in the West Bank city of Nablus. Hundreds of Israeli troops keep searching the West Bank for the suspected Palestinian killers of Rabbi Eitam Henkin and his wife Naama shot in front of their young children on October 1. The spike in violence has brought international calls for calm, with concerns the unrest could spin out of control and memories of previous Palestinian uprisings -- so-called 'intifada' -- still fresh. AFP PHOTO / JAAFAR ASHTIYEH (Photo credit should read JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images)
Palestinian stone throwers clash with Israeli security forces (unseen) near an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank town of Hebron on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread and provoked fears of a new uprising. AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER (Photo credit should read HAZEM BADER/AFP/Getty Images)
Masked Palestinian youths throw stones towards Israeli security forces during clashes at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread in recent days and provoked fears of a new uprising. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A masked Palestinian youth takes position during clashes with Israeli security forces at the Qalandia checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, on October 6, 2015. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said he wanted to avoid a violent escalation with Israel, his most direct comments since unrest has spread in recent days and provoked fears of a new uprising. His comments came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged a crackdown and Israel, in a show of force, demolished the homes of two Palestinians who carried out attacks last year. AFP PHOTO / ABBAS MOMANI (Photo credit should read ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian youth uses a slingshot to throw stones towards Israeli security forces (unseen) during clashes at the main entrance of the West Bank town of Bethlehem on October 6, 2015, following the funeral of 13-year-old Palestinian Abdel Rahman Abdullah. The Israeli army shot dead the Palestinian youth during clashes at a refugee camp near Bethlehem on October 5 as violence spiked in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. AFP PHOTO / MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
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The law says the PLO, the main Palestinian umbrella political body, cannot operate a Washington office if it urges the ICC to prosecute Israelis for alleged crimes against Palestinians.

In an address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian Authority called on the ICC "to open an investigation and to prosecute Israeli officials for their involvement in settlement activities and aggressions against our people."

The State Department official added that restrictions on the PLO in the United States, including the operation of its Washington office, could be waived after 90 days if U.S. President Donald Trump "determines the Palestinians have entered into direct, meaningful negotiations with Israel."

"We are hopeful that this closure will be short-lived," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, the Palestinian presidency expressed surprise at the U.S. move, which was first reported by the Associated Press.

WAFA quoted Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki as saying that Palestinian leaders would not give in to blackmail or pressure regarding the operation of the PLO office or negotiations on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

The agency quoted a spokesman for Abbas, Nabil Abu Rdainah, expressing surprise, given that meetings between Abbas and Trump had been "characterized by full understanding of the steps needed to create a climate for resumption of the peace process."

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A Palestinian official who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters the State Department had informed the Palestinians of the decision on Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear what effect the State Department's move might have on the Trump administration's efforts to revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which are led by Jared Kushner, the U.S. president's son-in-law and senior adviser.

   Abbas' spokesman called the U.S. move an unprecedented step in U.S.-Palestinian relations that would have serious consequences for the peace process and U.S.-Arab relations, according to WAFA.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday: "This is a matter of U.S. law. We respect the decision and look forward to continuing to work with the U.S. to advance peace and security in the region."

The State Department official said the U.S. move did not amount to cutting off relations with the PLO or signal an intention to stop working with the Palestinian Authority.

"We remain focused on a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that will resolve core issues between the parties," the official said.

(Reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Writing by David Brunnstrom; Editing by John Walcott and Lisa Von Ahn)

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