Open Zion

03.15.13

Palestinians React To Obama’s Upcoming Visit

All along Jerusalem Road, the road that links Ramallah with Jerusalem and passes through Qalandia refugee camp and Qalandia checkpoint, the signs that normally advertise new Palestinian enterprises are now covered in posters that say, “Dear Barack Obama: Don’t Bring Your Smart Phone to Ramallah. You won’t have mobile access to the Internet. We have no 3G in Palestine!”

“When me and my friends heard that Obama was coming, we wanted to do something creative,” Alawneh Mahir, one of the three activists behind the signs, told me. “We remembered a speech he made that he would never leave without his Blackberry, so we decided to make the posters about 3G Internet and link them to Palestine.”

Palestinians are denied 3G communications technology because they compete with Israeli companies, but Mahir tells me that the posters are about more than just 3G Internet.

“It is about showing Barack Obama all of the things that most people take for granted that you are not allowed to do when you live in Palestine.”

During President Obama’s two-day trip to Israel/Palestine—rumored to re-ignite the peace process—he will spend only four hours in the West Bank. Although he originally planned to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the Palestinian-Authority controlled de-facto capital of the West Bank, recent reports say that he may scrap the visit to Ramallah and instead meet with Prime Minister Abbas in Bethlehem during his visit to the Church of the Nativity.

“Obama is coming here just to see how life is, nothing more,” Hassan, who prefers not to give his last name and works as an electrical engineer in Ramallah, told me.

Still, if President Obama really did want to see how life is, he would not need to look far beyond Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity to see many present-day realities of Palestinian life under the occupation. For one, the separation barrier is at its most formidable in Bethlehem, snaking through Aida refugee camp in the neighboring village of Beit Jala. In addition to Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem is home to two other refugee camps—neighboring Al’Azza camp and Dheisha camp to the south.

In an open letter to President Barack Obama, Munther Isaac, director of the Christ at a Checkpoint Conference writes,

The church of the Nativity, of course, is not the only thing to see in Bethlehem. There are other important things to see. I suggest that as the President enters the town, from Jerusalem I presume, that he takes a look to his right, and he will see the Separation Wall. It is hard to miss. It is that ugly concrete structure that gives you the impression that you are inside a big prison. I am sure the President will notice how the Wall is killing life in Bethlehem, cutting deep into our neighborhoods.

As he continues on his way through the main street, I suggest he pays attention to his right, to the Azza refugee camp. I hope it reminds him of the misery of more than 5 million Palestinian refugees today, who are still waiting in hope for a just resolution to their suffering (see UN resolution 194).

A few lines down, the letter continues:

We in Bethlehem are tired of people visiting our town on a daily basis on a ‘religious duty’ without paying attention to the plight and suffering of the people of Bethlehem.

But back in Ramallah, the focus is on President Obama’s political impotence. 

“He cannot pressure or control Netanyahu—he may as well be a stone in the room,” Hassan continues.

“The Jewish lobby in the United States is too big,” his friend, Mahmoud, who also preferred not to give a last name, chimed in. “Even if Obama wanted to help the Palestinians, they would stop him.”

Although President Obama met with several leaders of prominent Arab-American organizations in preparation for his trip who urged him to send a positive message, the Palestinian people I spoke with seem to remain unconvinced. Despite his rousing promises of a "new beginning" in the Middle East during his Cairo speech at the beginning of his first term in office, to most Palestinians President Obama has proven to be more the latest representative of a perpetually failing peace process than the leader of the free world.

Hassan and Mahmoud didn't seem to think that President Obama is necessarily bad—just that he represents the same familiar broken peace process and is ultimately powerless in creating a meaningful solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

"Clinton visited. Bush visited. It did nothing," Hassan concluded. “Barack Obama’s trip has no benefit to the Palestinian people, so he is not welcome here."