What just happened?
First, President Barack Obama landed in Tel Aviv—he stepped onto the tarmac, said “Shalom” and the crowd went wild. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers saluted him and religious leaders greeted him. “It’s good to be back in the land of Israel,” he continued, in Hebrew.
His carefully selected blue tie and crisp white shirt matched Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s choice of shirt and tie as well as the blue and white Star of David of the Israeli flag. Pure coincidence? I think not.
Although he mentioned Israel’s security and Israel’s need for peace, he did not mention Palestine or the Palestinians once.
During his speech in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem was already preparing a warm welcome for the US President. All along the main highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, billboards advertising the “unbreakable alliance” between Israel and the United States had the red stripes of the United States paired with the blue Star of David of the Israeli flag—literally fusing the interests of the two countries together.
Meanwhile in Ramallah, Palestinians prepared for President Obama’s visit in a different way—holding up shoes, and signs carrying the pictures of Palestinian prisoners. A few miles away, in the nearby village of Ezzariyah, the Popular Struggle Coordination Committee re-erected Bab al-Shams, the Palestinian “settlement” in E-1 meant to reclaim the land from the potentially catastrophic illegal settlements that slated to be built—that President Barack Obama approved. A giant Palestinian flag flapped in the sunshine against the backdrop of the Ma’ale Adumim settlement with banners that were critical of Obama’s relationship to AIPAC.
In Hebron—a city divided between Palestinians and Israeli settlers characterized by a crippling apartheid that has drained Palestinian livelihood—demonstrators wore Obama masks and attempted to walk on Shuhada Street—which is forbidden to Palestinian foot traffic. Many were arrested and detained.
Thursday morning, President Obama arrived in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although the President made a nod to the Palestinian people, and a wish for the end of the occupation, he made no bold statements that were in any danger of re-igniting the peace process that so many have given up on. Outside Al Muqata’ah—the Presidential compound where the two leaders would be meeting—Palestinians once again marched in the streets, chanting “Obama, Obama out out!” and other chants that condemned both his support of Israel and foreign policies throughout the Middle East.
Finally that night in Jerusalem, the President mentioned Palestine, Palestinians and the need for peace and coexistence to an Israeli audience. Although many delighted at the President’s strong words, there are few signs that his speech was anything more than seductive rhetoric.
On Friday, the President was slated to go to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity—as per usual, flying by helicopter to avoid the hassle of military checkpoints and other realities of normal travel through the West Bank. However, due to a sudden sandstorm that hit the Holy Land at the most opportune time, the President was unable to fly, and instead had to travel by motorcade from Jerusalem to Bethlehem—meaning that there was no way for him to avoid either the checkpoint or imposing separation barrier, also known as the “Apartheid Wall” that separates the two Holy cities from one another, making a 7 kilometer journey take as long as three hours for some Palestinians.
In Dheisheh Camp, a refugee camp in the south of Bethlehem, several residents of the camp blasted traditional Arabic music and waved the flags of many different liberation movements—including Cuba, Tunisia and Syria.
However, Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces in full riot gear kept the protestors cordoned within the camp, making sure that Bethlehem’s less tourist-friendly realities were hidden from the President’s view during his 29 minute visit to pay homage to the holy child.
After the sandstorm subsided and one last meeting with Netanyahu, President Obama left the Holy Land for Jordan.
Now it is the presidential visit equivalent of the morning after, piecing together a blurry whirlwind of a presidential visit to the smallest, most controversial strip of real estate in the world. Rhetoric aside, many of the President’s actions showed which side he was on, far more than his words. President Obama kept Kosher the entire time, while barely stayed in Palestine long enough to become hungry. The President refused to so much as read a letter from the daughter of a Palestinian hunger striker. While President Obama lay a wreath at former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s grave, he failed to do the same for former Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) President Yasser Arafat.
So what now?
Following Obama’s visit, the United States has unfrozen $500 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority (which was frozen as a punishment for seeking statehood at the United Nations), but the Palestinian economy is still in shambles, with many public sector workers not having been paid in full for six months. For Israel’s Jews, it is Passover, a celebration of freedom. Yet for Palestine’s Christians celebrating Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, their holy city of Jerusalem is nearly impossible to reach—this year, only 30 percent of those who applied for permits during Holy Week received them. Upon Obama’s departure, like clockwork the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) raided Bab al-Shams, once again clearing away one of the only undisturbed Palestinian hilltops for settlement construction.
As far as Palestine is concerned after Obama, there is little hope and barely any change.
Photo by OpenDemocracy, licensed under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license