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'Not welcome': Disappointment greets Obama on West Bank visit

A kid holds a Palestinian flag as Palestinians erect protest tents in a camp on March 20, in the E1 area next to Ma'ale Adumim. The action took place at the same time as U.S. President Barack Obama arrived to Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images

RAMALLAH, Israel – Away from the pomp and ceremony of Barack Obama’s appearance in the West Bank on Thursday, the reaction to the president’s visit ranged from hostility to indifference.

Mustafa al Khteeb, a school teacher with seven children, was preoccupied with supporting his family, not the president’s arrival.

“I cannot feed my children,” he said as he gestured at an empty refrigerator and suppressed tears. “I feel like half a man. This is a shame.”

Al Khteeb’s salary, small to start with at about $700-a-month, is rarely paid on time, and usually he gets only half of it. The Palestinian Authority is strapped for cash and the first people to be affected are the 153,000 civil servants, including teachers, who can barely survive the month. In January, they went on strike calling for full payment of their salaries.

“I blame President Obama,” al Khteeb said.

“Why?” a reporter asked.  “Why not blame your own government, or Israel? Why is it America’s fault?”

“Because Israel does what America tells it to do and America is on the side of Israel,” he answered.

The Palestinian Authority’s money shortfall is due to a combination of disappointing domestic revenue, falling international donations and Israel sometimes withholding the hundred million dollars it collects a month in tax on behalf of the PA.

Meanwhile, unemployment runs at around 18 percent, and average annual income for a Palestinian at about $12,000 a year, less than half of that in Israel.

Many here pin the blame for the hardship on the United States, and that spilled over as Obama’s visit approached.

Workers in the Muqata, the government compound, played cat and mouse for days with protesters who defaced posters of the American leader, waited for them to be replaced, and defaced them again.

Small demonstrations against Obama popped up daily in Ramallah with slogans like “O-Obama, go back, Palestine is not for sale,” and “Obama, you are the enemy of the people of Palestine and ally of the Jews. You are not welcome here.”

Joy and hope

This anger was in marked contrast with the joy and hope with which Palestinians greeted Obama’s first term. They believed his 2009 speech in Cairo in which he called for democracy and for the rights of Palestinians and expected a change in American policy away from what they see as America’s blind support for Israel.

Four years later, little has changed for them: Israel continues to solidify its control on much of the West Bank and few believe in any peace process. No mention of the issue was made on Wednesday when Obama arrived in Israel.

So you hear it everywhere here: Life is hard on the West Bank and it is Obama’s fault.

“There are thousands like me,” said al Khteeb, the school teacher. “Nobody can live like this.”

The small numbers that attend the demonstrations tells another part of the story. A few dozen, a hundred or so at most, marched around the main square on Thursday, holding banners, calling through megaphones, as bystanders watched and went about their business.

“What good does it do?” one said. “Nobody listens to us.”

Obama’s visit to Israel is seen as a charm offensive, to mend fences with Israelis who have felt slighted and ignored by the American leader. He faces exactly the same problem with the Palestinians.

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List,""Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."


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