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Opinion

Palestinians see Obama visit as reminder of broken promises

As President Obama visits Ramallah in the West Bank, the mood among Palestinians is far from the hopes he ignited in Cairo in 2009. They would like to see Obama take a more even-handed, active role in brokering talks with Israel and a tougher stance on Israeli settlement construction.

By Dalia Hatuqa / March 21, 2013

Palestinian activists hold posters in an area known as E1 near the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, near Jerusalem, March 20. Op-ed contributor Dalia Hatuqa writes: 'Today, Palestinians see a US president that has, like many others before him, failed them by not only distancing himself from the conflict, but by actively working against Palestinians’ interests, such as vetoing their status upgrade at the United Nations.'

Majdi Mohammed/AP

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Ramallah, West Bank

Almost four years ago President Obama stood at a podium in the Egyptian capital promising Arabs and Muslims “a new beginning” with his country. His Cairo speech was hailed as historic, not least because it promised to usher in a new era of closer political and cultural ties, but also because Mr. Obama vowed to pay close attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict while calling Palestinian statelessness “intolerable.”

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Today, as Obama visits Israel and the West Bank, the mood among Palestinians couldn't be farther away from the hopes he ignited that day in Cairo. On Tuesday, Palestinians marched through the streets of Ramallah toward the presidential compound – Al Muqata’a – shouting anti-Obama slogans. Today, as Obama arrived at the compound where he would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, protesters gathered in Ramallah, held back by security forces.

In the West Bank city of Bethlehem, where Obama will visit on Friday the church where Jesus was born, men tore up billboards and posters of the US president. Meanwhile, Israel reported that militants in Gaza fired two rockets into Sderot, a town in southern Israel. No one was hurt, Obama will not be visiting the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, and Mr. Abbas condemned the violence. And Hamas has since denied knowledge of the attack. But the incident serves as a reminder of the tensions bubbling in the region.

Most Palestinians took to peaceful protest, however. Hardly any American flags lined the streets of either city Tuesday, and when the municipalities put some up Wednesday evening, several Palestinians took them down. There were plenty of posters telling Obama about the lack of a 3G wireless network in the West Bank. The posters (with an X marked across his face) were taped to electric poles.

For many Palestinians, the roots of this hostility are simple: Obama comes bearing no good news (much less any news) at all. He has no plan to restart the peace process or to offer any concrete initiatives to get Palestinians and Israelis back to direct talks, which have been on hold since 2010. Palestinians would like to see Obama take a more even-handed, active role in brokering talks between the two sides. They believe that the US president has the power to effect change, and feel that even a tougher stance on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank would go a long way in that direction.

One of his first acts of business in Israel Wednesday was viewing an Iron Dome missile battery, to display his commitment to Israel’s security. There were no moves such as this planned for the Palestinian leg of his visit – nothing to alleviate Palestinians’ fears and anxieties, as throughout Obama’s presidency, they have seen settlements mushroom across the West Bank’s hilltops at an alarming speed.

The White House has stressed that Obama is here to listen, but Palestinians are doubtful that message is aimed at them, considering the US president will only spend about four hours in the West Bank (out of a total of 50 hours for his Middle East visit).  This lies in stark contrast with the time he will have spent in Israel where on Friday he will also visit the graves of Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli prime minister, and Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Palestinians were hoping Obama would take a trip to the southern West Bank city of Hebron, where a regime of segregation between Palestinians and Israeli settlers makes the pre-civil rights United States look like Switzerland.

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