Abbas hosts largest gathering of Israelis in Ramallah since 2002

Israelis are prohibited from entering Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank. But an exception allowed 300 young Israelis to visit Palestinian President Abbas in Ramallah Sunday.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (c.) speaks during a meeting with a delegation of mostly Israeli university students and youth leaders, at his compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014.

At the main entrances of Ramallah stand big red signs warning Israelis that it is dangerous and against Israeli law to enter the city – a holdover from the second intifada, when two Israeli reservists who strayed into the city were lynched by an angry mob.

But Israel made an exception on Sunday, allowing 300 Israeli students and youth leaders to visit the Palestinian presidential compound. In what one Israeli newspaper described as the largest gathering of Israelis in Ramallah since a 2002 military operation, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the eager audience and fielded their questions.

The visit, originally scheduled for December but postponed due to a severe snowstorm, was organized by the OneVoice movement and member of Knesset Hilik Bar, who previously led a delegation of Israeli lawmakers to visit Mr. Abbas.

While Abbas is not known for being particularly charismatic, both supporters and critics of the event seemed to agree that he presented a more lively side to his young listeners. “For Israeli students in Ramallah, Abbas was a rock star,” the centrist Times of Israel declared, while a critical column from the right-wing outlet Arutz Sheva said the president’s speech was “anything but bland.”

Abbas, like his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, has been involved in intensive discussions with US Secretary of State John Kerry about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the past nine months. He addressed a number of obstacles in his speech Sunday, including Palestinian refugees, Palestinian and Israeli incitement, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem, and control of holy sites in Jerusalem.

Among the more notable points, he said he could envision a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem without needing to physically divide the city – something many Israelis are opposed to – and said he has no intention of flooding Israel with millions of Palestinian refugees that would change the demographic makeup of the country. He did, however, condemn Israeli settler violence and say that under Palestinian rule Jews would not be allowed to visit the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount complex, where the Second Temple once stood.

Such points, as well as discrepancies between his largely conciliatory message and his recent words to Palestinian audiences, led to some pushback.

Arutz Sheva, which is headquartered in the Israeli settlement of Beit El adjacent to Ramallah, criticized Abbas’s “breathtaking double-talk, historic revisionism and sugar-coated incitement – executed with a charm that was almost endearing.” Hamas also slammed the meeting, saying it only served Israel’s interest.

Although some students were left with more questions than they brought to the meeting, and others said they wished they could have roved the streets of Ramallah afterward, organizers deemed the event a success. Mr. Bar called on Mr. Netanyahu to reciprocate by hosting 300 Palestinian students in Jerusalem. 

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