Middle East

Palestinian disappointment at Obama presidency

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Media captionYoung Palestinians voice their discontent with Obama's record

"Obama has been worse than Bush," one Palestinian official in the West Bank told me not so long ago. It raised an eyebrow.

George W Bush's name is generally mud across much of the Arab World.

"Maybe not worse for the Middle East as a whole," the official clarified. "But for Palestinians, Obama has been worse to deal with."

Ahead of his visit to Israel and the West Bank, much has been written about President Barack Obama's apparently difficult personal relationship with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But these things are relative. He's not exactly hit it off with the Palestinians either. They've been disappointed.

"My mother cried with happiness when Obama was elected," says 16-year-old Bayann Khallili, a student at the Friends School in Ramallah.

"We had hope. But four years after his first inauguration we have nothing. They still support Israel as strongly as ever, at the expense of our freedoms."

Like most of the children at the Friends School, Bayann is articulate and outspoken. The school is reputedly the best in the West Bank.

Founded by the Quakers in the late 19th Century, the college is American-funded with American teachers.

Many of the students are Palestinian Americans.

The children are mostly from privileged backgrounds; the fees are around US $3,500 (£2,300) a year, no small sum for most Palestinian families.

Government ministers send their children to the school.

Message to Obama

On the day we visit, a history class there has a special subject: "What message would you have for President Obama?"

The president might not like what they had to say.

"It's been more than four years and nothing has changed," says 16-year-old Salem Rabah.

"You saw massacres happening, especially the one in Gaza, and there was no reaction. We are still dying here and there is no reaction from the president of the free world."

The students remember Mr Obama's famous speech in Cairo in June 2009 where he was perceived to have reached out to the Arab World.

"Let there be no doubt, the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," the then recently elected US leader told his audience.

"America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own."

But the events of the Arab Spring, which few, if any, predicted, have meant the Palestinian-Israeli issue has been largely sidelined.

Mr Obama's words in Cairo now have a hollow ring for 17-year-old Dina Toubasi.

"We expected much better stuff from an African American president. Not just because he's African American but because he would understand the fight for civil rights and the fight for human rights."

She points out that American aid to Israel has increased during Obama's time in office.

"He has broken the true noble morals and ideas that American was founded on. He should look back to the time of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin and really think about how things have become different."

'Palestinians weak'

But the students' criticism is not exclusive to Barack Obama.

When I ask them what they think of the Palestinian leadership, there are guffaws of derision.

Image caption Barack Obama's Cairo speech in 2009 raised enormous expectations

They single out the failure of the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah in power in parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, which governs in Gaza, to reconcile their differences and speak with one voice.

This, the students say, has made the Palestinians weak.

Gaza and Hamas, a movement that the United States considers a terrorist organisation, will be the elephants not in the room when Mr Obama meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who only has limited authority in the West Bank.

Around 1.7 million Palestinians live in Gaza.

Some Palestinians have being organising demonstrations to protest Mr Obama's visit.


In a cafe in Ramallah I meet Randa Wahbe, part of a group called Palestinians for Dignity. She's a Palestinian American. She voted for Mr Obama in 2008. It's a choice she now regrets.

"That was when I was young and naive in college," she tells me with an embarrassed smile.

"Aid has increased to Israel, the Jewish settlements have expanded drastically, there's more violence, there's more Palestinians in the prisons, and nothing has changed on the ground."

Like many young Palestinians, Randa Wahbe has given up on the two state solution - a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel - that Mr Obama and the rest of the international community continues to push for despite decades of failed negotiations.

"It's completely ridiculous to think there going to be a two state solution any more," she says, citing the number of Israeli settlers now living in occupied territory, land on which Palestinians want to build a future state.

Palestinians were unhappy that the United States failed to back Mr Abbas's successful move last year to have Palestine's status at the United Nations upgraded to non-member state.

The United States also supported Israel in opposing the Palestinian application to become a member of the UN's cultural and scientific body Unesco.

American funding to both Unesco and the Palestinian Authority was cut when the bid was successful.

During this week's visit, Mr Obama is due to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

The church was the first Palestinian site to be granted Unesco World Heritage Status. The irony will not be lost on people here.

Expectations that anything significant will come out of President Obama's visit are low.

Most Palestinians, going about their day-to-day business are indifferent at best. They seem more concerned with making ends meet amid a struggling, aid-dependent, economy.

"It's no bad thing that Obama is coming. It can't hurt if it means he can see the reality on the ground, actually meet some real people," one Palestinian official told me this week. "But we believe the Americans when they say they don't have a grand plan," he was quick to add.

And one question is how much many Palestinians the president will actually get to meet.

He will spend two days in Israel and a just a few hours in the West Bank. Most Palestinians will tell you this shows where America's priorities continue to lie.