Obama in the birthplace of Jesus (White House photo by Pete Souza)
US President Obama’s hurried appearances in two West Bank towns provided the desired imagery for his ‘listening’ trip to the Middle East. In both Ramallah and Bethlehem, he was well-insulated from the Palestinians themselves.
Obama’s helicopter landing at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah was challenged by peaceful, energetic protesters, kept several blocks away by three rows of progressively formidable police and soldiers. His arrival in Bethlehem was, in contrast, like a surreal wake following some natural calamity or apocalypse.
At 11:00 AM, an hour before his scheduled arrival at the Church of the Nativity, my partner Nancy Elan and I left our quarters by Rachel’s Tomb. Less than a month earlier, the IDF shot dead a sixteen year old boy and wounded many others in their suppression of demonstrations here against Israel’s torture-death of a Palestinian prisoner who it accused of throwing a stone at an illegal settler.
The main street stretching from the nearby checkpoint to the center of Bethlehem was deserted save for regularly placed rifle-wielding soldiers. A pinkish pall hung over the town caused by a fierce, sand-powered wind that fought noisily against our progress, all this the doing of the Khamsin, the dry, dusty windstorms that occasionally plague the region. Politics and heavens had conspired to turn normally bustling Bethlehem into a surreal ghost town.
The apartheid wall by Rachel’s Tomb. Note the windows opened at the tower’s top. (T Suarez)
The scene became yet more unreal when we passed the principal Israeli watchtower in the area. Up from the base of the tower, blackened and chipped from the recent flare-ups, we saw the tower’s thick windows, which are angled to allow the IDF to watch the streets, open. We had never before seen the tower open, but now the IDF soldiers were chatting with the PA soldiers below.
Reaching the heart of the old town, Manger Square was barricaded. The crowd was tightly corralled on the side of the Square furthest from Obama’s appearance at the Church of the Nativity, in front of the Mosque of Omar. As time passed with no sign of the president, it became clear that his plans were now being dictated by the Khamsin, which made helicopter travel dangerous. Facetiously for some, and seriously for others, this was divine intervention: the Almighty was none too pleased at Obama exploiting the Messenger of Peace for a false and exploitative photo-op. Meanwhile, the Israelis were blocking off a route through Jerusalem for his entourage to make the short trip by land.
Presidential entourage arrives at the Church of the Nativity (T Suarez)
As we waited, the helmeted police began to kettle and shove the peaceful crowd against the wall and ultimately into narrow St Paul VI Street. We were struck by the odd behavior of a few otherwise innocuous-looking individuals, and realized that they were plain-clothed police or informers; for example, one middle-aged woman (? we suspected it was a man) with corduroy jacket, head scarf, and large dark glasses could be observed alternately mingling with the crowds and then huddling with security officials.
Soon a parade of black vehicles arrived in the distant parking lot adjoining the Church. Inside the Church, safely out of sight, cameras clicked as the US president shook hands with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophills III.
Obama’s fleet exits through the locked-down streets of Bethlehem. (T Suarez)
We slipped back down to the dead, shuttered main street, where soldiers, knowing that the presidential exodus was near, reacted nervously to our presence and repeatedly warned us not to take any photographs. When the motorcade blared past with lights flashing, I managed a surreptitious shot. Minutes later, black cars with various lesser-deities passed, and once the last was gone Bethlehem’s doors and shutters opened. Life returned to the town of Christ’s birth.
The general feeling in the street was, as one would expect, outrage that the man principally responsible for empowering Israeli aggression had the audacity to make a self-serving visit to Palestine. Obama’s visit was spun by Israeli and US media, and indeed in veiled language by the White House itself, as the president standing in solidarity with the region’s persecuted Christian minority, a twist that is nothing short of Orwellian: Palestine’s Christians are suppressed and ethnically cleansed by Israel, not by their fellow Arabs. Indeed, Israel ethnically cleansed Christian villages to built some of the settlements that now ring the once-beautiful Bethlehem countryside.
As for the seemingly warm reception of religious figures, it should be pointed out that the same Patriarch Theophills III who met Obama was the first signatory to the 2009 Kairos Palestine document. This paper
“…requests the international community to stand by the Palestinian people who have faced oppression, displacement, suffering and clear apartheid for more than six decades. The suffering continues while the international community silently looks on at the occupying State, Israel … to stand against injustice and apartheid … we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples. [This document] demands that all peoples, political leaders and decision-makers put pressure on Israel and take legal measures in order to oblige its government to put an end to its oppression and disregard for the international law.”
The mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, was more forthright. She handed the president a letter telling him that “Bethlehem isn’t living in peace despite the fact that the city was a source of peace to the whole world,” and noted how the weather conditions had forced Obama to drive by the separation wall and see the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live.
But ignorance of the truth about Palestine has never been Obama’s problem. Rather, his visit proved once again that the role of the United States was based on concerns unrelated to right or wrong, in defiance of international law, contemptuous of history and, in the ultimate irony, against the interests of the United States itself.
1. For example, Obama visit to stress plight of Mideast Christians, The Times of Israel, March 15, 2013
2. A moment of truth. Kairos Palestine 2009.
3. Mayor of Bethlehem gave letter to Obama, Ma’an News Agency, March 23, 2013