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West Bank reacts to Obama visit with a shrug

A few kilometres away from the hype in Israel, Palestinians will greet the American president with anger and apathy.
Last modified: 20 Mar 2013 20:33

Ramallah – On the other side of the "green line", the boundary marking Israel's pre-1967 borders, this week's visit by US President Barack Obama is being greeted with something close to a national celebration.

The streets are lined with posters hailing the "unbreakable alliance" between the United States and Israel; both countries' flags hung from lampposts. Newspapers hailed Obama's "historic visit" on their front pages. (Other posters, which urged Obama to release Jonathan Pollard, the American citizen convicted of spying for Israel, were quietly removed before the president arrived.)

Many Israelis are still sceptical of the US president: A Jerusalem Post poll released ahead of Obama's visit found that 36 percent believe he is biased towards the Palestinians. The Israeli government nonetheless rolled out the red carpet for its most important international ally.

But Obama's alleged pro-Palestinian leanings came as a revelation to people here in the West Bank, who will almost unanimously greet him with a mix of anger, frustration and utter apathy.

There are no American flags or cheerful newspaper headlines. The only outward signs of Obama's visit are a few posters advising the American president not to bring his smartphone to Ramallah, because "we have no 3G in Palestine". Nobody seems to know who paid for the posters, though they are widely believed to be a publicity stunt by a mobile phone operator.

The only Obama-related posters in the West Bank were veiled advertisements for mobile phone companies

Regardless, they were quickly defaced: Some people drew red "X's" across Obama's face, while others simply tore his likeness off the posters.

In Ramallah on Wednesday, a main topic of conversation was the traffic. Obama will travel here for a few hours on Thursday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to tour a youth centre with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. His trip will mean widespread road closures and probably longer-than-usual traffic jams at Qalandia, the main Israeli checkpoint leading to Jerusalem.

On a hilltop near Ramallah, across from the Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim, a few dozen activists decided to welcome Obama by erecting tents and a large Palestinian flag.

Their camp was the third incarnation of Bab al-Shams, a short-lived protest village established by Palestinian activists in January east of Jerusalem. It was intended to create "facts on the ground", much the way Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank have done for decades.

Activists said Wednesday's protest, dubbed Ahfad Younes – after the protagonist in the popular novel from which Bab al-Shams drew its name – was intended as a message to the American president. Demonstrators held signs asking whether Obama planned to pursue another "four years of AIPAC policies", referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the influential US-based Israel lobby group.

"We are disappointed by his visit because he did not give any clear message to the Palestinians," said Mundher Amira, one of the organizers of the protest. "We want to have our brothers out of jail, and to have our state. We want him to come here to defend the rights of the Palestinians, not just the security of the Israelis."

By nightfall, Israeli officials had ordered the camp closed, but had not moved to dismantle it – though many activists expected them to do so overnight.

Further south, in the city of Bethlehem, Obama's upcoming visit was viewed mostly with a sense of dread. He will stop by for a few hours on Friday morning to see the Church of the Nativity, which marks the site where Jesus was born.

Shopkeepers and others who depend on the flow of tourists into Bethlehem said Obama's visit would not bring any political changes – only lost business.

"They are going to shut down 50 percent of the old town of Bethlehem," said Hisham Ikhmais, a tour guide outside the church. "That means nobody will come over next Friday to visit."

"He is coming just to see the place, just to put into his memories that he visited Bethlehem," Ikhmais added. "This is a fixed policy for American presidents, to stay, to make or to ally with the Israelis all the time, and to be against the Palestinians."

Even officials from the Palestinian Authority, normally reluctant to criticise the United States, waved off Obama's visit. One senior official said that the visit was focused purely on regional issues, namely the perceived threat from Iran's nuclear programme, and on rehabilitating Obama's image with the Israeli public.

If there was a message to the Palestinians, the official said, it was to "say goodbye" – an obligatory visit to the region by a president who has clearly decided not to waste any political capital on trying to broker a solution to a decades-old conflict.