The area around Al-Muqata’ah, President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential compound, and the sight of his meeting with President Barack Obama, was a ghost town today. A few blocks away, in the center of town, several hundred demonstrators assembled for the second day in a row in Ramallah’s central Al-Manara Square to march toward the compound. Abdallah Tamimi, a protester held a sign that read, "Dear Obama, I want to return to my father’s village, Okay?” He told me: “Obama likes the United States, so he can stay,” he continues. “He will never be evicted from his land as we were.” As if on cue, the buzzing of helicopters filled the sky—the president had officially arrived in Ramallah. Once the helicopter touched down, the demonstrators began to march towards Al-Muqata’ah, chanting “Obama, Obama out out!” Some Israeli press reported even harsher words against Obama.
Past the rows of police and several city blocks of perimeter, Obama thanked Abbas for a warm welcome, congratulated the Palestinian people on building a state and building their economy and affirmed his support for the end of the occupation and Palestinians’ right to live in peace. At the demonstration, Abbas wasn't greeted as well: “Obama is meeting with Mahmoud Abbas,” a young woman at the demonstration named Suad, who prefers not to give her last name, told me. “Mahmoud Abbas does not represent the Palestinian people.” The feeling was mutual:Palestinian Authority security forces blocked entrance to the Muqata’ah. A bit more feisty than on Tuesday, a few marchers pushed through the first row of police, but the second and third lines halted their progress after a little shoving.
Another woman held a sign that read: “Dear Obama, Please. My son Mohammad Ajaj has been 21 years in your prison for nothing. He is innocent.” According to his brother, Omar Ajaj, Mohammad was arrested while he was visiting his uncles in the United States. His family in Palestine was never given a reason for the arrest, and hes lawyer has little contact with either Mohammad or his family. “At least if he were a prisoner here we could visit him,” Omar said. Several protesters held signs with pictures of high-profile Palestinian prisoners on them.
While President Obama rode from Jerusalem to Ramallah by helicopter, most of the Palestinians looking up at him from Al-Manara Square have West Bank IDs, meaning that they cannot travel from Ramallah to Jerusalem, even though it is only twenty minutes away. Many of them have not been to Jerusalem since the Second Intifada—and some have never seen the neighboring city in their entire lives. If he had looked, Obama could catch a glimpse of the wall snaking its way through the West Bank and the bright red roofs of Israeli settlements peppered throughout the West Bank from the window of the helicopter.
Though Obama spoke of a future "state of Palestine" many times in Ramallah, after returning to Jerusalem, he only mentioned it twice, both in the second half of his speech. After paying homage to Jerusalem on the eve of Passover, and the security challenges that Israel is facing, Obama told the Israeli university students: "Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine.”
Whether the demonstrators in Ramallah saw a future Palestine the same way remained to be seen. Eventually, they went home, and the center of town returned to the usual Thursday night buzz.