RAMALLAH, West Bank — Among the many signs and placards greeting President Obama in this Palestinian territory are ones that convey the anger some feel about their condition.
“Dear Barack Obama: Don’t Bring Your Smart Phone to Ramallah. You won’t have mobile access to the Internet. We have no 3G in Palestine!”
Some Palestinians in this city west of Jerusalem have little hope that Obama’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories starting Wednesday will do anything to improve their lives.
Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he wants Palestinians to have their own state side-by-side with Israel, negotiations over such a possibility have been stalled for years over the issue of where to draw the borders.
David Tannous, owner of a dry goods store in this bustling Palestinian city, won’t be waving a flag to welcome Obama when he meets here with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, a day after touching down in Israel.
“Obama’s visit won’t accomplish anything,” insisted Tannous, 72, a well-dressed man clasping a set of worry beads in his hands. “Four years ago he promised that something good would come out of his administration, but then he backed away. I have no hope whatsoever that he will help the Palestinian people.”
When Obama delivered a speech called “A New Beginning” in Cairo in 2009, he raised hopes in the Arab world that the United States would begin to favor Palestinian interests over Israeli ones. Palestinians say this hasn’t happened.
Palestinians here said Obama should focus on the Israeli checkpoints and a cement security barrier that has prevented Palestinian terrorists from blowing up buses in Israel, but also has kept all but a few thousand Palestinians from accessing jobs, universities and hospitals in Israel.
Palestinians also said they want Obama to withhold aid to Israel until the Jewish state removes the barrier and uproots Jewish settlements from land Palestinians want for a state. They also demand that East Jerusalem become the capital of their state.
Israeli officials said they cannot take these steps until the Palestinian Authority steps up efforts to stop terrorist activity and drops its demands to uproot all settlements and end its right of return for all Palestinians and their descendants to live in what is now Israel.
They also want the Palestinian Authority to publicly reject Hamas, the Palestinian terror group that controls the Gaza Strip and calls for Israel’s destruction.
Obama will not visit the Temple Mount and the adjoining Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism. A visit to this site could signal acceptance of Israel’s presence and dominion in East Jerusalem, where many Arabs live.
But many Palestinians in East Jerusalem do not want to fall under Palestinian rule. East Jerusalem resident Riman Barakat said that inclination is reflected in the rise of applications of East Jerusalem Palestinians to become Israeli citizens.
“It’s a conscious choice to give up the national rights or the national collective kind of vision — which is that East Jerusalem should be part of a Palestinian state — and go for rational thinking and deduction,” Barakat said.
About 5% of East Jerusalem’s 280,000 Palestinians are Israeli citizens according to Israel’s Ministry of Interior. The remaining 95% are designated permanent residents of the city, with no nationality.
“I think that some East Jerusalem residents won’t say publicly they want to become Israeli citizens because they want to portray a certain kind of image. But privately, it certainly increases their possibilities in life.”
A recent survey conducted by Pechter Middle East Polls revealed that 35% East Jerusalem residents said that in any two state solution they would prefer to live in Israel, while 30% preferred to live in a Palestinian state.
And 40% said they would prefer to move to Israel if their neighborhood became part of Palestine.
Last Friday as pockets of Palestinians rioted during prayers at the Al Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount others a few streets away flocked to West Jerusalem’s shopping Meccas – Mamilla Mall and Jaffa Street.
Adnan Ghaleb al-Husayni, who manages the Jerusalem portfolio for the Palestinian Authority and is the governor for the Quds Governorate, said Palestinians must reject Israeli citizenship.
“We are against this…this is not the way that we should get back our rights.”
In the close to 20 years since the Oslo peace accords were signed between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, there has yet to be a final peace agreement on borders. Billions of dollars in foreign aid in that time has been given to the Palestinian government headquarters in Ramallah while East Jerusalem has remained largely abandoned.
Al-Husayni says building restrictions imposed by Jerusalem’s municipality and the sky-rocketing price of land has made life hard on Arabs here.
But that’s changing, Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat said.
“Mayor Barkat is placing a special emphasis on closing the gaps and overcoming a history of neglect in the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem,” said Barkat’s spokeswoman Brachie Sprung.
Sprung said it’s investing approximately $135 million or 500 million shekels in road improvements and $81 million or 300 million shekels in new classrooms and new council buildings. The mayor is opening more post offices in East Jerusalem and working with the Ministry of Health to open more infant clinics.
This has pleased many, Barakat said. But the Palestinian government insists that it is not what the Palestinians really want.
With talks over an independent state stalled, the PA requested and was granted recognition for limited statehood by the United Nations despite past truce agreements with Israel that it would only seek statehood through negotiations.
Still, “nothing has changed,” said Khaled Jamous, a West Bank restaurateur who, along with wife and his grown children, was having a meal at the packed Ramallah branch of KFC.
KFC is one of the growing number of symbols of modernity in the West Bank, and especially in the Ramallah area, where women cover their hair with Islamic head scarves while donning high heels and jeans.
While many people here are well-to-do, Jamous said, the economic situation has deteriorated in recent months, in part because Israel is withholding part of the Palestinian-linked tax revenue it is obligated to transfer to the Palestinian Authority, which uses the money to pay its employees.
The reason, said Israel’s former finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, is the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to condemn Hamas.
“We have very high unemployment and university graduates can’t find work,” said Valentina Awad, a 30-year-old university administrator. “The government is having trouble paying salaries and we can’t move around due to the checkpoints.”
Palestinian activists said they hope Obama will notice the placards they’ve put up all over the city. Most of the signs, which feature a photo of Obama, have been defaced with an “X” across the president’s face.
Palestinians “don’t have very high expectations due to past experience,” said George Giacamen, a Birzeit University political analyst.