Obama set to visit Bethlehem 'for 26 minutes'
Published Friday 22/03/2013 (updated) 27/03/2013 20:48
Palestinian protesters hold up signs and shout slogans expressing
opposition to US President Barack Obama's visit to the West Bank
city of Bethlehem, on March 22, 2013. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Barack Obama is set to make his second visit as president to the occupied West Bank on Friday, capping a 48-hour tour that has mostly emphasized Israeli concerns.
Before he heads to the Jordanian capital, a final blip on the US leader’s agenda is Bethlehem where Palestinian officials were scrambling Thursday to accommodate a massive security contingent expected to shut down movement in the city, albeit briefly.
"Twenty-six minutes, exactly," according to Bethlehem mayor Vera Baboun, citing a timeframe demanded by Obama’s travel detail. "How and why, I have no idea,” she said ahead of the president’s visit.
"I don't know how it's going to be 26 minutes. Don’t ask me," she said in an interview, sounding more bemused than disappointed.
Palestinian officials say the trip will start mid-day when the presidential Marine One helicopter takes off from Jerusalem and flies over the separation wall before touching down at Bethlehem’s only helipad, not far from the local presidential headquarters.
Two main streets were also to close in case Obama’s detail decides to enter by car, according to police sources. Days ago, transportation officials advised taxi and bus drivers to take the day off as most main routes were shut down for the duration of Obama’s stay.
President Mahmoud Abbas will accompany Obama for a tour of the Church of the Nativity, the historic birthplace of Jesus. Then Obama travels to a farewell ceremony at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport. Air Force One is scheduled to lift off at 3:15 p.m.
If the American leader sticks to the timetable Palestinian officials expect, he will not have a lot of time to ponder the encroaching settlements on three sides of this historically Christian city, or the 20-foot cement wall cutting Bethlehem off from its northern neighbor Jerusalem.
Asked what issues she would bring up with Obama during the final Palestinian stop on his regional “listening tour,” Baboun said the two were unlikely to speak. "We're not going to meet him," Baboun said.
"It's just shake hands and then bye, bye, Roma."
Despite the strict timetable, Baboun described Obama's trip as a welcome gesture aimed at understanding the obstacles facing her city. She hoped he would think hard about what he saw.
"It's important that President Obama comes and sees, as a president, and listens because we need acts," Baboun said. “Enough is enough, I think. We waited a long time.”
A longer stay in Bethlehem would have stood in stark contrast to the economic boomtown Obama observed a day earlier during a visit to the seat of the Palestinian Authority.
"Ramallah is a very different city than the one I visited five years ago," Obama told reporters alongside President Abbas on Wednesday. "There's new construction. There's new businesses, new start-ups, including many high-tech companies, connecting Palestinians to the global economy."
Bethlehem's economic situation is among the harshest for Palestinians outside the "Ramallah bubble," which is heavily dependent on foreign aid and government investment projects.
Bethlehem's traditional industry, tourism, collapsed after Israel completed the northern portion of its wall. The industry has never fully recovered. Nearly 20 percent of the population is out of work today, and Bethlehem's unemployment rate is the highest of any city in the occupied West Bank.
According to the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, the economic situation is partly the result of a lack of Palestinian control over 65 percent of the district's territory. All but 35 percent is subjected to restrictions on movement and military orders to protect settlements. "If you want to develop our economy, we need to control our areas," says chairman Azmi Bishara.
Palestinian officials said this week that the length of Obama's visit Friday could be extended depending on the level of hostility to his presence in the city. Palestinian activists said they planned to protest the president's arrival with a rally at one of the main intersections and blocks from the Nativity Church.
"In light of the anti-Palestinian US position, Obama is a persona non grata in Bethlehem," Munthir Amira, chairman of a youth center in Aida refugee camp, told Ma’an ahead of the visit. He was speaking after protesters tore down a sign depicting Obama in the square surrounding the church.
The same square was locked down late Thursday, a Ma'an reporter observed.
Baboun, the mayor, said security forces would not obstruct peaceful demonstrations against Obama's visit.
"People have the right to express themselves in the way they want," the mayor said, adding that the security zone around the church would nevertheless be enforced.
Speaking for herself, though, Baboun viewed the president's decision to visit as a positive gesture, and she encouraged Obama "to listen and see -- and to act."
"Bethlehem is the place where the message of peace was witnessed in the Nativity, where the message of peace was born. Unfortunately, this place is not witnessing peace at all."
She added: "It is his opportunity to act, I think."