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.”
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.
Or perhaps he could meet with relatives of Palestinian prisoners, many of whom have launched long-term hunger strikes to protest their arrest and incarceration without charge by Israeli authorities. Even Obama’s journey from Israel to Ramallah is scheduled to take place by helicopter, thereby bypassing the wall that snakes its way around much of the West Bank, annexing land into Israel and separating the holy city of Jerusalem from its Palestinian suburbs.
This morning, Obama met with Abbas, whom many of his constituents feel has outlived his mandate. During his time, Palestinians managed to update their status at the United Nations, but that was not enough to offset the seething anger rippling through the streets over the status quo: an economy in shambles, a political stalemate, and more land confiscation for Israeli settlements.
The White House has gone out of its way to ensure that very low expectations are set for this visit, but Palestinians who are weary after witnessing little change in their political landscape since Obama’s first term see this trip mainly as an opportunity for Israel and the US to address issues in Iran and Syria.
Wednesday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama was the tenth since Obama was elected. No other world leader has managed to secure as many meetings with the US president since he took office some five years ago.
Pessimism in the West Bank is compounded by the view that the trip is merely an attempt to bury the hatchet between the two leaders, whose relationship has been fraught with highly publicized spats. The White House has already stressed that the visit constitutes a “chance to connect with the Israeli people.” Palestinians feel that they play no part in that equation.
Palestinian frustration has reached a profound and unprecedented level as of late, replacing the sense of hope many had following Obama’s historic speech in Cairo. 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.
During Tuesday’s demonstration by Palestinians, many small signs carried slogans with large meanings. One was marked with the words “No Hope” – a play on Obama’s campaign buzzword. Another read, “We have a Dream, Too” – in a nod to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech. Another stated, “Obama you promised us hope and change, you gave us colonies and apartheid.”
When Obama visits a youth center in Al-Bireh near Ramallah following talks with President Abbas and his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the Israeli settlement of Psagot will be visible in the distance. Palestinians are wondering if Obama will notice.
Dalia Hatuqa is a Ramallah-based writer who previously worked for Al Jazeera in Washington, DC.