Opinion

What Palestinians really think about Obama

The lack of US contact with Gaza has created a gulf that thwarts progress in the region.

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The yawning gap of misunderstanding between America and the Palestinians in Gaza strikes this returning former US diplomat regularly during two weeks of encounters with Gazans in the cafes, salons, and diwans (evening gatherings of elders) of this sweltering desert city.

Gazans of all stripes, both decades-long friends of mine and new contacts, are intimately aware of President Obama's Cairo speech last month, which many see as a breathtaking change from Bush administration policy.

But, especially after years cut off from contact with Americans by US policy to isolate Hamas, they have little grasp of US culture – or of the realities facing an American president seeking to take up their cause.

Until this gap is bridged, miscommunication and distrust will thwart progress in the region.

From unemployed young men playing cards in a cafe during the day, to old-line Fatah members grousing at a late-night diwan about Hamas's strength and Fatah's disarray, to confident senior Hamas officials, Gazans I spoke with all correctly see Mr. Obama as uniquely engaging in the Palestinian conflict while they incorrectly imagine that he wields unlimited power.

He's the rais, or chief, they argue, so why can't he cut off the $3 billion-plus a year in US aid to Israel, end the blockade, and make Israel negotiate?

Fatah members, for example, relish Obama's words and his demand to end settlement construction. To them, Obama has made this conflict the preeminent issue of his administration.

The vast economic, political, and geopolitical issues facing the president – Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea – strike them as second-tier issues. It's as if these men are not only wearing blinders, they're wearing blinders while looking at a mirror.

The cardplayers grin, welcome me, their American visitor, repeatedly with ahlan wa sahlan, and use their few words of English to ask when they can anticipate having jobs again.

Hamas officials are dismissive, arguing that Obama has delivered words, not actions.

They missed entirely the importance both of Obama's comparison of the Palestinian struggle to the civil rights movement and of his engagement early in his first term. They insist that Hamas's past "concessions" went unrecognized and that if Obama meant business, he would have already ended the blockade. To them, his failure to do so in barely six months shows that he's not serious.

In each discussion, reference to US counterterrorism law, policy, and the so-called "loyal" American opposition that considers Obama an appeaser draws anything from blank stares to dismissive shrugs, followed by more discussion.

But the cultural and interpretive differences go further. Two senior officials speaking in separate conversations each cite the current postwar cease-fire and the movement's offer of a hudna, or the 10- to 20-year cease-fire with Israel, as Hamas concessions.

Both men speak fluent English. One lived for years in the US and considers himself an America expert. But they are both amazed to hear that, to many Americans, the current cease-fire appears more a tactic to avoid obliteration by the Israeli army, and that a hudna looks like a way to remove Israeli pressure while Hamas rearms and trains a new generation of fighters.

Then there is the issue of time.

Fatah hands want relief now, both to end the population's suffering and to weaken the power of Hamas, which they say has been infinitely strengthened by the blockade and the lawlessness that spurred the 2007 Hamas takeover of Gaza. One Fatah leader, disgusted at his own party's disarray and corruption, says of Hamas, "suffering is the raw material of their lives."

The Hamas official with American expertise, defending the concept of a long-term cease-fire, asserts that a hudna would allow a generation of new leaders to determine their own future and relations with Israel. I ask him why another two decades would generate any more moderation (on either side) than the past two decades. He quickly charges that time is on the side of the Palestinians, both demographically and, if no accord is reached, for acquiring a weapon of mass destruction to strike Israel.

Yes, we are both speaking English, but, truly, we are speaking different languages. And if Hamas is relying on such experts for advice on handling the Americans, we are all in for not just a bumpy night, but endless conflict.

By refusing to communicate with all parties here, the US has left its message in the hands of those who either lack fundamental understanding of America, or who understand but also taint the message for personal or ideological ends. It leaves both political leaders and 1.5 million Gazans relying on whatever happens to come across in rumor, conspiracy theories, local media, or the propaganda channels of those in power.

Far from cutting communication, the US should be carrying forward its message on the backs of diplomats, aid officers, and US-supported organizations; expanding the bang-for-the-buck International Visitors Program that built so many lasting friendships between Gazans and Americans, and boosting Fulbright and similar programs.

More important, these Americans need to sit and listen, sipping endless cups of coffee and tea, reaffirming Obama's message that America seeks a just end to this conflict, and correcting – diplomatically if possible and less diplomatically if necessary – the misunderstandings, misinterpretations, urban legends, and demonization that arise when contact is cut and each side dehumanizes the other.

Americans and Palestinians need to hear from each other directly, people to people, across a broad array of disciplines; across cultural, commercial, development, and interreligious mechanisms; and without the filters of ideology, avarice, and ignorance.

Until then, Gazan and America are not even on the same playing field.

Norman H. Olsen is a former Senior United States Foreign Service officer. He served at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1991 to 1995, when he was responsible for covering the Gaza Strip, and from 2002 to 2007, including four years as chief of the political section.

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