Obama Ignores the Ugly, Brutal Reality of Occupation and Colonization on His Israel Trip
Round after round of tear gas was shot by a group of Israeli soldiers on a hill overlooking a protest of about 100 Palestinians in support of a hunger striking prisoner. The smell of rubber tires filled the air, and the fired tear gas made protesters’ eyes water as they ran back on a road in the central West Bank town of Beitunia after throwing stones at the soldiers. The demonstrators, most of them young, were there to show their support for Samer Issawi, a Palestinian prisoner reportedly close to death after being on hunger strike for well over 200 days in protest of being held in jail on secret evidence. Issawi’s hearing was scheduled to be held at Ofer prison in the occupied West Bank on March 21, but he was too sick to show up.
Hunger striking prisoners, angry youth protesters living under a nearly 46-year-old grinding occupation, and tear gas and rubber bullets fired at abandon that injure and maim Palestinians--this was the part of occupied Palestinian life that President Barack Obama avoided. The president arrived in Israel on March 20, and promptly set the tenor of his trip by giving a speech at Ben-Gurion Airport that did not mention the word Palestine or Palestinian.
While he did eventually speak of the “indignities” Palestinians suffer under occupation during his big speech in Jerusalem to Israeli youth on March 21, the words, for many Palestinians, rung hollow. Barack Obama’s visit skirted the reality of what occupation and an institutionalized set of unequal rules based on ethnicity means to ordinary Palestinians living within Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. The big Obama visit to Israel, his first as a sitting president, cemented the “unbreakable alliance,” as the official slogan for his trip put it, between the U.S. and Israel--an alliance that comes at the expense of the human rights of Palestinians.
The scene at Ben-Gurion Airport as Obama first arrived was a sign of things to come. Israeli and American flags waved everywhere you went. An Israeli military band launched into a song that said a lot about the trip. The song “Jerusalem of Gold” echoed through the air, a tune that celebrates the so-called unification of Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli rule--a unification that has meant expulsion and illegal settlements for the Palestinians living in what Israel considers its capital, though the international community has not recognized the Israeli annexation. The Israeli military band also played the American and Israeli anthems back to back, another sign of the closeness between the U.S. and Israel.
“Thank you, Mr. President, for upholding the Jewish people’s right to a Jewish state in our historic homeland,” crowed Israel’s right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose previously frosty personal relationship with Obama was nowhere to be seen. That frostiness was certainly absent from Obama’s effusive praise of Israel at Ben-Gurion Airport.
“I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bonds between our nations,” said President Obama at his official welcoming ceremony at the airport. “The United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel.”
Nobody in Israel wanted to mess up the careful choreography planned for the Obama visit. In a VIP room set up at the Israeli airport for Obama’s arrival, American and Israeli officials mingled with one another and traded niceties. Nobody would grant an interview--not U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, and not Yair Lapid, a former television journalist and the new star of Israeli politics. Lapid, whose surge in the recent Israeli elections surprised everyone and is the finance minister in Israel’s new government.
The careful choreography and cementing of the Israeli-American alliance continued later in the day, when Obama and Netanyahu fawned over one another at a press conference. “As Bibi mentioned, this is our tenth meeting. We have spent more time together, working together, than I have with any leader,” said Obama, who repeatedly uttered Netanyahu’s nickname “Bibi” in another sign of closeness between the two leaders.
Inside the press room, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren also did nothing to upset the choreography of the trip. While Israel continues to chip away at the much talked about future Palestinian state by building illegal Jewish-only settlements, the semblance of an Israeli desire for negotiations with the Palestinian Authority remains one way that the government tries to reduce the pressure on themselves from the international community. The desire for peace talks that in reality go nowhere was emphasized by Obama and Netanyahu at their joint press conference, as well as by Ambassador Oren.
Obama’s visit was about the “deep and unbreakable alliance between” the two countries, Oren said in a brief interview. Asked about the new government’s pro-settlement makeup, Oren replied: “The government’s committed to the peace process. There may be different ideas about how to proceed, but the government, the Israeli government, the way our democracy works, it’s a consensual form of government, there’s one government position...And the government is committed to finding a solution.”
The next day, Obama flew to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. As Palestinian protesters gathered in the center of Ramallah, a black U.S. helicopter flew over the city en route to the Muqata, the name for the Palestinian Authority’s administrative center. It was a potent symbol for how Obama allowed the reality of occupied Palestine to go unmentioned. For instance, his Air Force One flights allowed him to skip seeing the ugly separation wall up close, a wall that juts deep into the occupied West Bank and grabs more land for illegal settlements.
The protest in Ramallah, attended by a little over 200 people, was called for by the Palestinian political factions, and supporters of Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine showed up. They chanted, “Oh Obama, out, out,” a refrain that reflected widespread Palestinian anger and disillusionment at the Obama visit. But the small Ramallah protest in Palestine, while spirited, did not make a dent in Obama’s visit. The demonstration marched from the center of Ramallah to near the PA’s compound, but was stopped in its tracks by Palestinian security forces whose show of force was meant to make sure the Obama visit went smoothly. The PA’s police force has been well-trained by Western governments, including the U.S. But they have been accused of human rights abuses, and have cracked down on other Palestinian political factions and crushed internal dissent.
On March 22, Obama’s last day in Israel/Palestine, he visited other important sites in Jerusalem, including the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem and the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. And while he traveled around Jerusalem, Palestinians in Beit Safafa protested against a planned highway that is set to slice their village in half. As they marched down a road, they chanted, “Everybody says no to Obama,” which rhymes in Arabic. The villagers have been leading demonstrations for a number of weeks against the highway, which will serve the settlers of Gush Etzion to allow them to easily connect to Jerusalem.
The one small part of Obama’s trip where he accurately described the reality of Palestine was in his speech to Israeli youth. “It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day,” the president said. “It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.”
But those lines pale in comparison to the pro-Israel mood he set on the rest of his trip. And for many Palestinians, the words will ring hollow. While in Israel, Obama announced that “as part of our long-term commitment to Israel’s security, the Prime Minister and I agreed to begin discussions on extending military assistance to Israel.” The current package for U.S. military aid expires in 2017, and Obama said that “we’ve directed our teams to start working on extending it for the years beyond.” In practice, this means that U.S.-made weaponry will continue to flow to Israel. It’s just one more sign for Palestinians that, despite Obama’s mild condemnation of Israeli occupation, the U.S. will continue to send a blank check to Israel. As Daniel Levy wrote for Foreign Policy, “Obama's basic message -- Israel has America's unconditional support in perpetuity -- could be interpreted as having told Israelis that even as you abandon recognizable democracy in favour of apartheid, the United States will still have your back.”
Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the Palestine Center, echoed this sentiment in a statement published by the Institute for Middle East Understanding. “What he has told Israelis is that the US will stand by Israel regardless of what choices it makes – even if that choice continues to be perpetual occupation,” said Munayyer.
Palestinians are the first people to understand this simple fact. In a protest village set up as Obama arrived, a blunt message was sent to the president: “You promised hope and change—you gave us colonies and apartheid,” read signs put up in the protest village called Bab al-Shams, meant to demonstrate in favor of Palestinian claims to their land under occupation. And the signs put up in the village, in a sentence, sums up the disappointment and disillusionment many Palestinians feel towards the president. His trip to the region only confirmed those Palestinian protesters’ message.