In Bethlehem, Palestinians Confident Trump's One-hour Visit 'Won't Change Anything'

Getting ready to host the U.S. president, the residents of the West Bank city have many grievances and low expectations

Palestinians print a poster depicting U.S. President Donald Trump in preparations for his visit to Bethlehem, May 21, 2017.
MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

BETHLEHEM - Unlike Jerusalem, Bethlehem is devoid of Trump memorabilia of any sort: no mugs, no T-shirts and no welcome banners.

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In Bethlehem, the U.S. president was initially scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and see the renovated Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. Late Sunday, amid rumors that Trump's team wanted to avoid an encounter with a protest tent supporting hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, the church visit was dropped.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit to Bethlehem on Tuesday is now scheduled to last a single hour.

>> Donald Trump's visit to Israel: Live updates and analyses >>

On Star Street, Rami Zayed, a 37-year-old pharmacist, watched a broadcast of Trump’s speech at the Islamic-Arab-American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

“Bravo Trump,” he said, with a measure of skeptical equanimity. “Bravo to him. I think he went there to take more money from Saudi Arabia, and he succeeded, so well done.”

His opinion of Trump or of the presidential visit had not shifted as a result of the much-awaited speech. “I am very happy that he will come to visit Bethlehem, in the way we are happy when anyone in the world comes to visit us. But do I think he or his visit will help us in any way? Of course not.”

Zayed’s indifferent but not altogether negative state of mind was reflected among a broad cross-section of Bethlehem residents.

Assem Barakat, the owner of a well-known fabric and clothing shop a few doors down from Zayed’s pharmacy, chose to ignore the speech. “I don’t have the time for it,” he said, noting that he expects to lose business due to security measures in the next two days. “What I know is that he will come to Bethlehem. Of course I’m not happy. But hospitality is part of our culture, and we should give him a good welcome. Happy is one thing. Hospitality is another thing. The visit won’t change anything.”

In his Riyadh speech, Trump made no mention of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank nor of a possible outline for a peace plan, stating instead that stemming the flow of funds to terrorists would be the basis of his discussions with Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. There was no immediate reaction to the speech from the Palestinian leadership in Riyadh for the summit, and local representatives declined to comment.

A prominent advocate of nonviolence, who requested to be identified only as a Palestinian citizen of Bethlehem, did not anticipate that Trump’s visit would augur a new beginning. “Trump’s trip is more of a matter of finance than anything else," he said. "It involved a $110 billion deal. The question is, does such a deal enhance human rights or is it only helpful to the Saudis for reinforcing their regime?”

“I would like to see a U.S. administration that has an evenhanded policy and speaks up against the occupation,” he added. “The ongoing policy is not helpful to Palestinians and also not helpful to Israelis, in the long run.”

The entire conflict, according to the activist, can be explained by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. “I believe that when the occupation ends there will be no more violence,” he said.

After hearing Trump blame Iran for the bulk of the terrorism in the region during his speech, he commented, “I hope Trump’s visit is not going to ignite a new war against Iran or against anyone else. Approaches to Middle East peace have to be based on inclusive security for all and the right of people to self-determination and the right to coexist with each other.”

Like the Palestinian government, which has been positively surprised by some recent statements from the Trump administration, social activists have also taken a relatively positive view of the visit. Nimala Kharoufeh, a member of the Fatah youth movement and the founder of nearby Beit Jala’s Beit Ashams community center, focused on comments that have raised some hopes locally, such as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s mention of the importance of Palestinian self-determination. However, her take following the speech is “unchanged,” she said. “I feel really positive, not that I have high expectations, but I’m positive about this visit. Not moving this embassy to Jerusalem is another positive step, so nothing in the speech changed my position.”

Zayed, the pharmacist, used a metaphor to describe his views. “Asking about Trump’s visit is like a joke question,” he said. "It’s like in medicine: a placebo. We just take it to feel that ‘I took medicine,’ but in fact nothing has changed.”

“No one believes us, Palestinians and Israelis," he added. "I’m talking about normal people, the usual people you see. We love to live together in peace. We do everything together. We work together. We have business together. We go to the same hospitals and the same restaurants. We have a life together. Leaders don’t want peace because with it, they will lose their prestige. Bibi Netanyahu is supported by America. If there is no more war here, he will lose their support. The same goes for Abu Mazen," said Zayed, referring to Abbas by his nickname. "He is supported by Arab states. If there is peace – no more support. I pray to God every day to wake up and discover there are no politicians.”