As Obama visits Ramallah, Palestinians vent anger over US policy and political prisoners

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A Palestinian demonstrator holds up a poster against President Obama outside the Palestinian Authority’s compound as police block the road (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)

Palestinian protesters in Ramallah vented their anger at Barack Obama today as about 200 demonstrators took to the streets to urge Obama to get out of Palestine. But the protest was relatively small, reflecting Palestinian disillusionment with the U.S. and with the moribund peace process. The action was well contained by Western-trained and financed Palestinian security forces as the president met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

“Oh Obama, out, out,” chanted the small group of Palestinian protesters in Arabic, as they headed from the center of Ramallah to as close to Abbas’ compound as they could get. They were met by rows and rows of Palestinian police officers, who successfully held back the protesters from advancing any closer to the Muqata, the Arabic name for the PA’s compound. Small scuffles broke out as the police pushed back the demonstrators, who yelled at the security forces in response.

The Palestinian protesters, who joined a demonstration that was called for by some of the Palestinian political factions, also chanted about their lack of free access to Jerusalem. Factions represented included Fatah, Hamas and the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and were joined by Palestinian youth. Demonstrators also held up posters affirming their right to return, and one sign read: “I want to see my father’s village.” Another sign in English read: “USA is not a fair sponsor for any political process in the Middle East.”

“We need change,” said demonstrator Ibraheem Abdel Jawad, a young protester affiliated with the Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy. “My message to Obama is: stop supporting Israel and stop the conflict.”

Palestinian Authority security forces put the area near the Muqata, the site of the authority’s offices, under tight security. As early as 9:00 am, two hours before Obama and Abbas were scheduled to meet, security forces patrolled outside the compound and asked for identification from anyone who was walking near it.

Western-trained and armed PA security forces were out in full force today.
(Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)

Inside the heavily guarded compound, Obama met with Abbas, as well as PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad al-Malki and other top PA officials, according to the Ma’an News Agency. Obama mentioned settlements at his press conference with Abbas for the first time on his trip to Israel/Palestine, but did not demand a halt to them. While he said settlements are an important issue to resolve, he emphasized that the PA and Israel should return to direct negotiations, a plan that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu signaled support for yesterday. Obama also signaled support for “peaceful protests” in Palestinian villages during his press conference with Abbas–the same protests that are repressed by U.S.-made tear gas.

“We do not consider continued settlement activity to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” said President Obama at the PA compound. He said that the occupation delivers “indignities” to Palestinians and that “Palestinians deserve a state of their own.” He also condemned rocket fire from Gaza, hours after at least two rockets landed in the south of Israel. The PA likewise condemned the rockets from Gaza.

And in his speech to Israeli youth this afternoon, he briefly condemned settler violence and said that “neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.” Still, as the Palestine Center’s Yousef Munayyer said, his “speech suggests that President Obama will do little more than pay lip service to an outcome he refuses to put the muscle of his office behind.”

Abbas voiced strong opposition to illegal Israeli settlements as well at his appearance with Obama. “Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution,” said the PA president. “We are asking for nothing outside the international legitimacy. It is the responsibility of the Israeli government to halt settlement activities so we can at least speak.”

The meeting with Obama came as a report in the New York Times revealed that Abbas was so desperate to return to negotiations that he was prepared to allow Netanyahu to pledge to him “secretly that he will stop settlement activities during the period of negotiations.” But any freeze in settlements in Israel would likely cause great consternation within Netanyahu’s coalition, which is dominated by supporters of expanding the illegal West Bank settlements. And Palestinians are largely fed up with a “peace process” that has delivered nothing but Israeli settlement expansion.

The issue of Palestinian prisoners was given a passing mention during Obama’s meeting with Abbas. But it is an issue that looms large for most Palestinians, unites Palestinian society and has galvanized popular protests. The demonstrators in Ramallah had the issue of Palestinian prisoners clearly on their minds, as chants about the prisoners were shouted and a poster of Marwan Barghouti, an imprisoned Palestinian leader, was held up high. 

President Obama was given a letter from Palestinian prisoners’ families urging him to intervene on the prisoner issue, and particularly on behalf of the hunger striker Samer Issawi, according to Ma’an. Issawi, who was released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal and re-arrested nine months later, has been on hunger strike for 232 days in protest of “his re-arrest and re-trial based on secret information,” according to the Palestinian prisoner rights’ organization Addameer.

At around noon, clashes between the Israeli army and about 100 Palestinian protesters in support of Issawi broke out near Ofer Prison, though Issawi was reportedly too sick to attend his scheduled military hearing there, which has been pushed back to April. ”The military court in Ofer has scheduled three further hearings for Samer Issawi in May, when Israeli intelligence will present secret information about Issawi’s case. Neither Issawi nor his lawyer are allowed at these hearings,” Ma’an reported earlier today.

At the clashes, flags representing the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a leftist political faction, flew high. Issawi is a member of the DFLP.

The Israeli army fired tear gas as protesters gathered in support of hunger striker Samer Issawi (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)

Israeli soldiers on a hill launched tear gas round after tear gas round as young Palestinians threw rocks and burned tires. Rubber bullets were fired by the Israeli military, which injured several protesters. The clashes went on for several hours.

But the frequent clashes with the Israeli military are a part of life in Palestine that Obama did not speak about, or see. 

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“NOW with Alex Wagner” on the two-state solution:

Wouldn’t we all like to be the proverbial fly on the wall when Obama thinks about the plight of the Palestinians? Does he really think the daughters of Palestine are less worthy of empathy than the daughters of Israel, so much he never mentioned such an equation with his own daughters asleep in their beds? What does it mean for America that he makes his empathy public for Israeli kids, but not native Palestinian kids?… Read more »

RE: “[T]he protest was relatively small, reflecting Palestinian disillusionment with the U.S. and with the moribund peace process. The action was well contained by Western-trained and financed Palestinian security forces . . .” ~ Alex Kane MY COMMENT: These “Western-trained and financed Palestinian security forces” are considered by some Palestinians to be collaborators with the Israel’s occupation. FROM WIKIPEDIA [“United States security assistance to the Palestinian National Authority”] . . . When the Israeli Air… Read more »

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