RAMALLAH, West Bank — As a general strike paralyzes the West Bank, President Barack Obama's recent visit to the region is a distant memory. "Since Obama left, nothing has changed except for the worse. Settlements have continued to grow, and today we buried another Palestinian," said Issa Amro, a Hebron-based leader of an activism group called Youth Against Settlements.
In Ramallah, Obama told Palestinians that they "deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it." But in the wake of the American president's departure, the Israeli crackdown has only worsened. The strike was called to protest the death of Maysara Abu Hamdiyeh, a cancer-stricken Palestinian who died in an Israeli jail cell on April 2. In the ensuing protests over Abu Hamdiyeh's death, Israeli soldiers shot dead two Palestinian youths in the West Bank.
The disparity between Obama's words and the reality on the ground is not lost on Palestinians. While the president's Middle East trip may still be hailed as a diplomatic success in Washington, it is viewed in the West Bank with a mixture of apathy, skepticism, and outright hostility. In Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the West Bank, posters of the American president were doused with black paint prior to his arrival. In Bethlehem, some of the U.S. flags hung the night before he visited the Church of the Nativity were burned.
Four years ago in Cairo, Obama made a promise to the Arab and Muslim worlds that he would implement a drastic change in their relations with the United States -- and Palestinians listened carefully. "I thought that a black president, whose ancestors suffered under the reigns of slavery, would come to understand our pain," Amro said. "He did not address our suffering and it became obvious soon enough that the object of his visit was to lend support to the Israelis."
Amro's views are widely held among the Palestinian public. According to a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Obama's trip actually harmed his reputation among Palestinians: Twenty-nine percent of respondents said their feelings for the president changed for the worse, while only 8 percent said they had a more positive view of the president. The survey also found widespread pessimism about the peace process, with 55 percent of respondents saying they believed the United States would fail at reviving the stalled talks.
Such gloom is the product of decades of dashed hopes. The 20-year long peace process has only delivered Palestinians an autonomous governance structure in the Palestinian Authority (PA), which further entrenched the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Settlements still haunt the political and geographic landscape, with the number of approvals for new units skyrocketing in 2012 by 300 percent compared with the previous two years, according to the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now. Palestinians have watched as construction continued almost unabated ever since Obama took office, with pro forma international condemnations doing very little to put an end to Israel's gradual takeover of West Bank land.
Meanwhile, the economy in the occupied territories continues to limp along, dependent upon dwindling international aid and tax monies withheld by Israel. Political stagnation and financial setbacks led to the largest domestic protests ever seen in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which at times were beaten back by U.S.-trained Palestinian security forces.