In Ramallah, Fatah official says Obama signaled he is more Jewish than the Jews
President's praise for security services is insulting in light of the economic collapse of the Palestinian Authority.
United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Ramallah on Thursday proved at least one thing: The Palestinian security services have become very professional in recent years. They prepared extensively for the mission, “even without helicopters,” as one security official took pride in saying. They hosted the advance U.S. security team and were praised for their level of preparedness, according to the official.
On the morning of the visit, the Palestinians closed what they call the “security square” in Ramallah and nearby El Bireh to all traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, and placed dozens of police cars at the ends of the blocked streets. There were several rows of police officers standing with arms linked and looking very serious as they faced down protesters demonstrating against Obama’s visit because of his unwavering support for Israel.
Armed security personnel were stationed on the roofs of tall buildings around the Muqata and used their binoculars to examine the handful of demonstrators quibbling over the slogans. Some of the protesters cursed the police standing there silently; some yelled that insulting the police was an ugly thing to do, since they too are brothers; some made demands of Obama; and others said his visit was unnecessary and unwanted.
At his press conference in Ramallah, Obama found the time to praise the professionalism of the Palestinian security forces. “Palestinian security forces are stronger and more professional − serving communities like Bethlehem, where [Palestinian Authority] President [Mahmoud] Abbas and I will visit the Church of the Nativity tomorrow,” Obama said, adding that “this progress has been achieved under some extremely challenging circumstances.”
To the ears of the average Palestinian citizen, this was a backhanded compliment, insulting in that it judges the Palestinian Authority through the paternalistic eyes of the occupier. It was galling to some in part because the main improvement Obama cites relates to the security services and their skills in repressing opposition at home − they do not, after all, prevent the daily incursions of the Israeli military.
The general impression among Palestinians is that the PA is on the verge of economic collapse, collecting more and more taxes while failing to pay salaries regularly, set a minimum wage for private-sector workers or provide proper health and educational services. PA officials in Gaza had a few hundred shekels deducted from their wages last week in a surprising − some say illegal − effort to cover electricity debts, and essential medicines are lacking in the national health system because suppliers have stopped selling to the PA on credit. In such a reality, Obama’s praise did no more than add fuel to the flames of anger.
“His message upon landing at Ben-Gurion Airport was that he’s more Jewish than the Jews,” a senior security official and Fatah leader said in Ramallah’s Al-Manarah Square, adding that he prefers to watch the demonstrators get ready for their rally than be bored waiting for Obama’s helicopter to land.
The security official’s comments reflected the sense of sobriety and lack of expectation with which Obama was received at the Muqata. Still, even veteran Palestine Liberation Organization and Fatah officials who watched the televised Obama-Abbas press conference in Ramallah were shocked and angered. They raged at how he named an Israeli boy who lost a leg in a rocket attack but failed, even as a gesture of politeness, to mention any Palestinian children, like those whose father, Arafat Jaradat, died last month while being interrogated by the Shin Bet security service.
The officials were even more enraged by Obama’s failure to stress the gravity of the ongoing building in settlements and his retreat from the unequivocal position against settlements that he laid out at the beginning of his first term.
Asked for his opinion of the press conference, one very senior official muttered − not for attribution, of course − “Shit.”
Abbas has made no secret that his opinion of the settlements hasn't changed, that they are illegal, even according to international law. Would he be willing to renew negotiations without a settlement freeze, as Obama explicitly demanded?
The general indifference of the Palestinian public might lead one to believe that even if Abbas is forced to backtrack on his position and return to the negotiating table without such a freeze in hand, in return for further American funding, he won't face insurmountable pressure and protests. All the same, warned one of the demonstrators, the explosion will come, due to the Palestinians' socioeconomic despair and the absence of any hope for a political resolution to the conflict.