29 Minutes

03.22.13

The Bethlehem Obama Didn't See

If President Barack Obama had landed in Bethlehem by helicopter as planned, he would have landed just outside of Dheisheh Camp—a refugee camp in the south of Bethlehem.

However, as fate would have it, a sandstorm struck Jerusalem on Friday, causing Obama to have to drive to Bethlehem rather than fly. On his way, he undoubtedly saw the separation barrier that cuts Jerusalem off from Bethlehem and the checkpoint that makes the commute between the two cities last many hours—even though they are only seven kilometers apart.

Obama’s convoy was most likely waved through the checkpoint, but he saw the separation barrier with his own eyes. This was not part of his original itinerary.

Obama planned to come to Bethlehem Friday morning to once again meet with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as well as to pray at the Church of the Nativity. However, many Palestinians living in Bethlehem are perturbed that the President will be paying homage to the holy child as a religious duty, while ignoring many of the daily hardships of Palestinian life under the occupation.

“If I could show Obama anything, I would show him how we live in Dheisheh,” a young boy named Majd who lives in the camp but didn’t share his last name told me.

Dheisheh Camp is one of 59 Palestinian refugee camps; it mostly houses descendants of refugees who fled from villages west of Hebron and Jerusalem. Since the second intifada, restrictions on movement and curfews on the camp have made it nearly impossible for refugees to find work, making unemployment soar to above 70 percent. Water shortage and electricity blackouts are common, and though United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) is responsible for the camp’s wellbeing, decreased funding has made their job difficult. The camp’s population of 11,000 inhabitants lives on less than a half square kilometer of land.

Today in Dheisheh Camp—one of many of the oft-forgotten parts of Bethlehem—several people gathered to protest Obama’s visit and perceived support of Israel and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. This protest was a far cry from the Ramallah protests, where at times it seemed like foreign press nearly outnumbered the demonstrators who filled the city streets of Ramallah to protest Obama’s meeting with Abbas. Instead, Palestinians from the camp assembled in the presence of few cameras and foreign press members, playing traditional Palestinian music and waving Palestinian flags and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) flags. Others held flags from many other global liberation movements. One man waved a Cuban flag with an image of Ché Guevara, another waved the Tunisian flag, and several waved Syrian flags.

“We represent Syria because they are refugees and we are refugees,” Waed Salem, one of the demonstrators carrying a Syrian flag surrounded by two Palestinian flags, told me. “Syria is rising against their government, and we wish to rise against the governments that control us. The United States is one of them.”

Many Palestinians speak of the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority as a trifecta of leadership; many reject all three.

Once the march began, two lines of Palestinian Authority security forces in full riot gear and several armed soldiers greeted the protesters as they marched. Protesters were eventually trapped by the police forces, unable to leave the camp until the city was re-opened after Obama’s visit.

“I just want him to finish his visit and leave,” one protestor named Mohammad Said told me.

After 29 minutes in the Church of the Nativity—a whole three minutes over schedule—President Obama left the way he came, by motorcade, for one last meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv before jetting back to the United States. The streets of Bethlehem opened again, and the residents of Dheisheh camp went back to business as usual.