Bethlehem underwhelmed ahead of Obama's visit
In stark contrast to the enthusiasm that has met him elsewhere during his visit, in Bethlehem, citizens welcomed Obama with a mix of apathy and hostility.
BETHLEHEM – It was hard to notice any excitement on the streets of Bethlehem this morning ahead of the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama. Small American flags were flying from lamp posts on the road leading from the helipad to the Church of Nativity but no welcome banners had been erected for the guest. The dusty Manger Square seemed almost derelict nearly three months after Christmas, which is the only event that brings a bit of life to the town, and decorations still remained. It took an order from the Palestinian Authority for a broom to appear and the trash swept away.
Inside the church, before the area was cordoned off, a trickle of pilgrims was still entering and praying and a young priest, Father Atwan, said he wasn't aware of a reception prepared for the American president. In Manger Square, Fathia Ajaj stood with a Palestinian flag and a picture of her cancer-suffering brother, Ahmed Ajaj, who is serving a 115-year sentence for his part in the 1993 bomb attack on the World Trade Center. She was there to ask Obama to release him. A short while later she was bundled away by the black-suited Palestinian security agents who began filling the square.
The main road was secured by soldiers of the Presidential Guard wearing U.S.-issue helmets and the streets leading to the square were cut off by border police wielding new riot gear.
It wasn't clear whether they were expecting trouble today, but yesterday the square had been filled with thousands of supporters of the ultra-Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement which supports a return of the Islamic Khalifate (pan-Islamic kingdom) calling for ”no Ahalan and no Sahalan to Obama” (no welcome for Obama). Around the square were still posters of the movement against "the head of the heresy, Obama, murderer of Muslim children.”
In the square and the surrounding streets there were mixed feelings about the visit, ranging from apathy to hostility. The shop-keepers and owners of restaurants hoped that the increase in visitors, more than the number normally seen here during non-Christmas season, will boost business a bit.
"It’s good that Obama is visiting a holy place but I don't believe he can bring peace," said Waseem Zoghbi, a municipal employee. "We have already learned that peace won't come quickly but if he can’t help, let’s hope he will do no harm.” As a Christian he thinks, "more attention should be paid to why Christians are leaving here.” And no, he didn't bother watching Obama’s speech yesterday to Israeli students in Jerusalem.
Rami Zayed, a pharmacist, did catch the speech but thought, "it was very strong for Israelis and didn't say anything to us.” Obama spoke of the need for a Palestinian state "but there is a big space between words and actions," Zayed said. "Obama is just another politician, without feelings, just interests. The Palestinians are a poor people, we have nothing America wants. The Jews lead the economy in the United States and that's why Obama is good to the Israelis. He has been president for four years and has done nothing for the Palestinians.”