The week was all about US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and Palestine, the first of its kind since he took office as president. After arriving in Tel Aviv on March 20, Obama churned out a double serving of Israel-love, slathering praises and support on Israel and its leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama and Netanyahu were even wearing color-coordinated ties – blue – in a show of kinship.
On April 21, the US president was flown to Ramallah in a six-helicopter fanfare where he met with President Mahmoud Abbas. Although the two met at the presidential headquarters where late President Yasser Arafat is laid to rest, Obama noticeably skipped paying tribute to the leader.
During a joint press conference after the leaders met, Obama made two things clear. He would put the security of ‘a Jewish Israel” first and would continue to support the establishment of a Palestinian state that would guarantee his first point.
Abbas played the diplomat, welcoming President Obama to Palestine and reiterating the Palestinian commitment to a two-state solution. “Today, we conducted a good and useful round of talks with President Obama. It was an opportunity to focus, on our side, on the risks and the results that exist that a continuation of settlement activity represent on the two-state solution, and over the need to release prisoners,” Abbas said.
“I asserted to the President that Palestine has taken long and additional steps for the sake of making peace. I hereby assert again that we are ready to implement all our commitments and obligations, and to respect the signed agreements and international legitimacy resolutions in order to provide for the requirements of launching the peace process and achieving the two-state solution — Palestine and Israel.”
President Obama was equally as cordial. “The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it. Palestinians deserve to move and travel freely, and to feel secure in their communities. Like people everywhere, Palestinians deserve a future of hope — that their rights will be respected, that tomorrow will be better than today and that they can give their children a life of dignity and opportunity. Put simply, Palestinians deserve a state of their own.”
But, he was sure to reaffirm the US position on negotiations. “As I have said many times, the only way to achieve that goal is through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves. There is no shortcut to a sustainable solution,” in clear reference to the US opposition to the Palestinians’ status upgrade at the UN to observer state.
On settlements, Obama made these comments: "That's not to say settlements aren't important, that's to say if we resolve the (main) problems, then settlements will be resolved," Obama said, referring to the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate while Israel continues to build on Palestinian land.
Abbas, was not moved by the tepid US disapproval. "It isn't just our perception that settlements are illegal. It is a global perspective. Everybody views settlements not only as a hurdle, but more than a hurdle to a two-state solution," he said.
"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."
Later that day, after also visiting a youth center in Al Bireh, President Obama made an hour long speech to Israeli youth in Jerusalem’s convention center. The speech was the highlight of the trip and marked what many said were Obama’s true feelings about the conflict.
After heaping more praises on Israel, its people, history and accomplishments, Obama came to the crux of the matter. “The only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine,” he said.
“Peace is necessary. But peace is also just,” the president said, following it with a request most Israelis would probably never consider.
“Put yourself in their [Palestinian] shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of their own. Living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements not just of those young people but their parents, their grandparents, every single day. It’s not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; or restricting a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or displace Palestinian families from their homes Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
He also pointed out that negotiations were necessary, but could not be futile. “There's little secret about where they [negotiations] must lead -- two states for two peoples. Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace, and that an independent Palestine must be viable with real borders that have to be drawn.”
The next day, Obama prayed at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem accompanied by President Abbas before leaving to Jordan. Palestinians in Ramallah and Bethlehem along with other areas demonstrated against Obama’s visit but were held back from reaching the venues where Obama was by preventive security forces.
Also during his visit, President Obama pledged to resume aid to the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, a pledge which came through on March 23 when the US transferred $500 million to the PA. $300 million of this sum are funds the US previously suspended and $200 million are contributions for this year.
Another result of President Obama’s regional tour has been a public apology from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the deaths of nine Turkish citizens during the 2010 Israeli navy raid on the Gaza flotilla, the Mavi Marmara. Obama is said to have mediated the reconciliation.
Erdogan accepted the apology during a phone conversation with Netanyahu. Erdogan’s office later released a statement saying Turkey valued its “friendship” with Israel.
Apparently, Netanyahu told Erdogan that an Israeli investigation into the incident revealed several operational errors made by Israeli forces. Netanyahu “expressed his apologies to the Turkish people for any error that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete an agreement to provide compensation to the families of the victims.”
On March 21, Israel reduced the Gaza fishing zone from six to three miles as punishment for two rockets that were fired from the Gaza Strip this week. The Kerem Shalom commercial crossing was also closed.
Palestinian minister of civil affairs Hussein al-Sheikh confirmed the measure. "The Israeli side officially informed us that Kerem Shalom crossing is closed until further notice, and that the Gaza fishing zone was reduced from 6 to 3 miles".
The two rockets, which a Salafist group in Gaza claimed responsibility for, fell in the southern Israeli city of Sderot but caused no injuries.
On March 22, three Palestinian children were from Israeli custody after being arrested earlier this week in Hebron. The minors were identified as Ahmed Abdel Raouf Burgan, 15, Ahmed Abdel Muti Abu Mayaleh, 13, and Mohammed Abdul Muti Abu Mayaleh, 13. On March 20, Israeli forces detained some 30 students who were on their way to school in the southern area of Hebron.
"This type of mass arrest of a group of minors, not on the basis of individual suspicions is unacceptable, even if the minors are formally over the age of criminal responsibility," the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said in a statement.
Palestinian activists set up a new ‘village’ near Izzariyeh east of Jerusalem on March 20, setting up 15 tents on land slated for confiscation by Israeli authorities. The new village was named ‘Ahfad Younis” and is part of the Bab Al Shams initiative. Israeli forces surrounded the tent village on the same day, saying Palestinians had established "an illegal settlement" and handing the residents eviction orders.
In a statement, the activists described the initiative as “first, to claim our right as Palestinians to return to our lands and villages, second, to claim our sovereignty over our lands without permission from anyone."
The activists also said the initiative aimed to highlight their opposition to the Obama administration's policies in the region, saying that it has been "complicit in Israeli occupation and colonialism."
This week also saw long-standing hunger striker Ayman Sharawneh released to the Gaza Strip. In a deal struck with Israeli authorities, Sharawneh agreed to be exiled to the Strip for 10 years in exchange for his release. On March 20, Sharawna’s mother and two brothers arrived in Gaza City to meet Ayman after being made to travel to the Strip via Egypt. But the reunion was bittersweet. Not only is Sharawneh banned from returning to his home in the West Bank for a decade, but his brother and nephew were arrested by Israeli forces a day after he was released.