What Palestinians really think about Obama
The lack of US contact with Gaza has created a gulf that thwarts progress in the region.
Gaza City, Gaza
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.