UK's Prince William to make landmark royal visit to Palestine to break down barriers

First UK royal visit to the occupied territories and the only trip by a monarch-to-be since 1862

MUMBAI, INDIA - APRIL 10: Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, and Catherine, Duchess Of Cambridge, during Bollywood inspired charity gala dinner at Taj Palace Hotel on April 10, 2016 in Mumbai, India. (Photo by Pramod Thakur/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
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Prince William is to make a landmark visit to West Bank this summer on a trip that will be closely watched for signs of esteem for the people of the occupied territory.

The tour of Jordan, Israel and Palestine is set to be a finely balanced diplomatic exercise at a time of divisions. The British royal family has for decades chosen not make a tour at such a high level.

The news the Duke of Cambridge will visit Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories later this year is very welcome. It will be the first official visit to Palestine by a member of the British Royal Family and presents a unique opportunity for diplomatic and cultural dialogue in the region,” said former foreign office minister, Sir Hugo Swire.

The Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the visit as "important".

"We look forward to contributing to strengthening the bonds of friendship between the two peoples," a statement from the Palestinian presidency on official news agency WAFA said.

The agency also published comments by the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi that said Prince William, who also carries the title Duke of Cambridge, would not only be welcomed by the leaders but also ordinary people in the territories.

“On behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organisation Executive Committee and the Palestinian people, we welcome His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge on his scheduled visit to Palestine this summer,” said Mrs Ashrawi.

“Prince William, who accepted an invitation from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, will be a welcome guest, not just of the leadership but of the Palestinian people who will provide him with the opportunity to share their stories first-hand and connect on a human level.”

Mrs Ashrawi said the trip would serve to enhance diplomatic and cultural relationships.

No details were forthcoming over whether or not Princess Catherine, his wife, would also make the trip but she is due to give birth to the couple's third child in April so the prospect is considered slim.

While the exact programme has not been finalised, the British consul-general in Jerusalem also hinted that the prince would engage with the community.

"I am delighted that Prince William has accepted President Abbas' invitation to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territories in the summer,” said Philip Hall.  “This will be a unique and special opportunity for His Royal Highness to meet Palestinian people and see the reality of life in the Holy Land. I know he is looking forward to the visit enormously."

Observers said Prince William would walk a tightrope to avoid giving offence to any side. "The choreography of the trip is important. It will be just after the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Israel and the Nakba and it will be impossible to dodge the issues," said Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. "He cannot say nothing about the suffering of the Palestinian people.

"It's quite uncharted. Royal visits don't tend to happen in conflict zones, outside of Northern Ireland. It's not even like the 1980s or 1990s. The territories are even more occupied with settlements and plans to annex settlements around Jerusalem.

"The Palestinians will also be watching the balance of the visit. It can just be a four-to-one ratio with Israel. In that sense it is pretty astute that it includes Jordan."

The British royal family enjoys close links to King Abdullah II, who is the only foreign royal to serve as colonel-in-chief of a British army regiment.

For the Israelis the visit ends what has long being perceived as a royal snub. "Netanyahu, if he is still in power, will be driving home the message he delivered a visit when other prime ministers did not," said Mr Doyle.

In 2012 the prominent Israeli writer David Landau accused the British royals of deliberately boycotting the country.

"When the royals do come, as they sometimes have to – like when Rabin was killed or when Philip’s mother was interred in Jerusalem – Buckingham Palace and Whitehall make it pointedly clear that their visits are not Royal, nor even official," he wrote. "Is there another member-state of the United Nations that the British Royals have so consistently and assiduously snubbed in this way?”

Leaked correspondence from Clive Alderton, the deputy private secretary to Prince Charles, hinted at frustration with Israeli lobbying on the issue of a visit. “Safe to assume there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening?” Mr Alderton wrote. “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image.”

The area has been visited by royals before but the last official trip was in 1862 when Palestine was undivided and part of the Ottoman empire.

Prince Edward, later Edward VII, visited Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and the Galilee.

Gaining special permission the prince entered the holy sites of Islam, including Haram Al Sharif and the Hebron mosque.