Obama wins few friends on flying stop to West Bank
US president's visit lasted little more than four hours, most of it spent inside heavily-guarded presidential compound
Matthew Kalman in Ramallah
The Guardian, Thursday 21 March 2013
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and US president Barack Obama in Ramallah Photograph: ZUMA / Rex Features
In Jerusalem the streets were decorated with Stars and Stripes for the visit of Barack Obama. Officials even created an official logo for the visit and plastered it across advertising hoardings.
In Ramallah it is a rather different story. The only billboards to mark the US president's trip to what is in effect the capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank were dozens of posters put up by protesters along the main road from Jerusalem, which read: "Obama: don't bring your smart phone to Ramallah – you won't have mobile access to the internet – we have no 3G in Palestine." They had been painted over, apparently by security officials.
While Obama's speeches in Israel have been peppered with endearing Hebrew phrases, he has said only one word publicly in Arabic: "Marhaba" (hello).
The US president landed in Ramallah to the strain of a military band, but his visit was short, lasting little more than four hours, most of them spent inside the heavily guarded Mukata presidential compound talking to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.
Obama briefly inspected an honour guard before beginning two hours of talks with Abbas followed by lunch. After a press conference, Obama ventured out to a youth centre to see a group of young people who had built robots using Lego and had come second in an international competition, before he headed back to Jerusalem.
Flying in and out on the presidential helicopter Marine One, Obama could not see a group of about 300 protesters who had gathered a few hundred metres from the Mukata chanting anti-American slogans that accused the US of war crimes.
Central Ramallah and nearby Al-Bireh were in effect placed under curfew until Obama's departure. The area around Abbas's compound and the youth centre, and the roads between them, were cordoned off by armed police who set up roadblocks and turned away all traffic. There were no crowds of cheering scouts or flag-waving children – just a slightly ominous calm that seemed to presage a political storm.
Inside the Mukata, the atmosphere was barely more cordial. Palestinian leaders had hoped for a gesture of friendship from Obama to compensate for his back-slapping banter with Netanyahu the night before, whom he called by his nickname "Bibi" 10 times in half an hour.
Instead, Obama berated Abbas for insisting on a freeze on new settlements as a precondition to re-starting peace talks, calling them merely "an irritant".
"We require the Israeli government to stop settlements to discuss our issues," he shot back. "It's not only our perspective that settlements are illegal. The UN security council has issued more than 13 resolutions condemning settlements and calling on Israel to remove them."
Nor were the Palestinians impressed by Obama's repeated reference to Israel as a "Jewish state", and his tendency to dwell on Israeli security concerns.
"How would President Obama feel if the US became a 'white Protestant' country? Just like Palestinians in Israel feel with 'Jewish Israel'," said PLO official Xavier Abu Eid. He said Obama was "giving a lesson about fears of an occupying power while visiting a colonised and occupied people".
Obama will pay another brief visit to Palestinian territory on Friday when he tours Bethlehem before departing for Jordan. Many people in the West Bank might be left wondering why he came at all.