Last updated: March 19, 2013 4:41 pm

Palestinian official criticises Obama visit

Palestinian children hold up banners with messages to US President Barack Obama, asking the United State's policy to work for peace in the Middle East and freedom for the Palestinians, during a protest in Hebron, West Bank, 19 March 2013. Most Palestinians regard Obama not fair in his dealings with them.©EPA

Palestinian children hold banners during a protest in Hebron in the West Bank on Tuesday

A senior Palestinian official criticised Barack Obama’ s agenda during this week’s trip to Israel and the West Bank, saying the US president “should have been more careful” about his choice of itinerary, and that Palestinians would stage nonviolent protests to mark the visit.

The attack came as the West Bank saw a second day of street demonstrations against Mr Obama’s visit, which begins as a new rightwing Israeli government takes office and faith dwindles among Palestinians for a negotiated end to their conflict with Israel.

Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council and head of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party, accused the Americans of “unequal treatment of Palestinians” because Mr Obama would not be visiting the grave in Ramallah of Yasser Arafat, the PLO founder.

“Whether he agrees or disagrees with President Arafat, President Arafat is a symbol of the Palestinian people . . . and so we don’t think this is a good gesture,” Mr Barghouti said.

“It’s a passive, a negative gesture,” he added, especially given that in Jerusalem the US president would be visiting the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the assassinated Israeli prime minister.

Mr Obama has also declined to meet the daughter of one of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, Mr Barghouti said.

Mr Barghouti criticised Mr Obama’s plans to view the Dead Sea Scrolls at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, which he described as “stolen materials” from occupied Palestinian land. “He needed better legal advice from his people on his matters,” he said.

Mr Obama arrives in Israel on Wednesday for a three-day trip to the region that will include a stop in Ramallah on Thursday for talks with Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian president, and Salam Fayyad, prime minister. On Friday, he is due to return to the Israeli-occupied West Bank to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

“We hope that a miracle could happen and maybe when he sits there and listens there he will get closer to God hopefully,” Mr Barghouti said. “A miracle will happen and he will come out and condemn the apartheid system and see segregation as an accident, not only in the US but also here.”

Mr Barghouti’s remarks are contributing to setting the tone for Mr Obama’s first trip to the region since becoming president, and Palestinians are anticipating it with mixed emotions.

On Tuesday about 150 protesters gathered on Ramallah’s al-Manara square and marched to protest against Mr Obama’s visit, carrying signs reading: “No Hope”, “Aipac Poodle” – a reference to the powerful Jewish-American lobby group – and “Obama Persona Non Grata”.

“He came with a message that we can make change, but here we know he’s not going to bring change,” said Hatam Qawasmi, 43, a participant in the protest. “He’s just going to buy time for the occupation.”

The protest came a day after demonstrators gathered in Bethlehem’s Manger Square set fire to pictures of Mr Obama and threw shoes at a US diplomatic vehicle ahead of the visit.

Mr Barghouti said that further, unspecified “nonviolent protests” would take place during the trip against Israel’s continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

“I think he will also see in the coming days Palestinian nonviolent actions that send a message about the importance and value of nonviolent resistance and expose the double standard that is used in treating Palestinians in comparison with how settlers are treated,” he said.

Palestinian protesters, mimicking tactics used by Jewish settlers, have in recent weeks set up tent camps in areas of the West Bank where settlements are being planned or built, which Israeli officials have quickly removed.

Mr Obama’s agenda will include an effort to prod Israeli and Palestinian officials to restart peace talks, but faith in the two-state solution is dimming among the Palestinians because of Benjamin Netanyahu government’s continued expansion of settlements in areas of the West Bank that they say undermine the viability of a future state.

Mr Netanyahu on Monday presided at the swearing-in of a new coalition whose third-biggest partner is Jewish Home, a pro-settler party that opposes a two-state solution that would result in an independent Palestine.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party says it favours a resumption of talks on the two-state solution, and Mr Netanyahu appointed former foreign minister Tzipi Livni as justice minister, with a brief to head talks if negotiations can be restarted.

Palestinians have been alarmed by some of Mr Netanyahu’s new appointees, including Jewish Home’s Uzi Ariel, an ultranationalist settler, as housing minister.

Moshe Yaalon, the new defence minister replacing the moderate Ehud Barak, said on Monday that “the new government will strengthen settlement in Judea and Samaria”, the Israeli government’s term for the West Bank.

A financial crisis in the Palestinian Authority has further soured the public mood among Palestinians. A World Bank report on the Palestinian economy published earlier this month concluded that the fiscal crisis, combined with a “protracted stalemate in the political process” were hurting both short-term economic growth and long-term competitiveness.

“We are facing here a very clear crossroads – either we move towards a solution and Palestinian statehood . . . or we move toward building settlements,” Mr Barghouti said. “You can’t have both of them at the same time.”

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