In the West Bank, a Mix of Skepticism, Tempered Optimism and Rejection

(By David Silverman -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 11, 2008

BETHLEHEM, West Bank, Jan. 10 -- In a second-story apartment on a normally bustling street that was empty except for the policemen staking out every corner and a teenager shooting baskets on a rim with no net, Youssef Muhammad Jiada and his son echoed a debate raging across the Palestinian territories Thursday.

"He's not here for our people. He is here for the Israelis," Jiada, 68, said of the American president's visit to the Church of the Nativity a half-mile away. "He only comes to say that he came, not because he is a friend of the Palestinians. He is for Israel, and everyone knows."

"People say he is the friend of Israel and the killer of Arabs," said his son Moussa, 25, nodding and stroking his close-cropped goatee. "But we should first hear what he says. At least he came here."

President Bush faced a deeply skeptical, and occasionally hostile, Palestinian audience Thursday, even as he uttered some of the strongest affirmations of Palestinian ambitions by a U.S. president. Most of those closely involved in the negotiations offered tempered praise for Bush's remarks. But many outside the process said they would withhold judgment to see whether action would follow words, or they denounced Bush without paying much attention to what he had to say.

After Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met with Bush in the West Bank city of Ramallah, officials from the Palestinian Authority and Abbas's Fatah political movement said they were encouraged about Bush's commitment to the peace process, including a pledge to return to the region as many times as necessary.

"The U.S. president told the Palestinian president, I am going to come here again and again until I see this done -- one time, two times, as long as it takes to get an agreement. This made an impression," said Saeb Erekat, a Palestinian Authority spokesman who attended the talks.

Walid Awad, a Fatah spokesman, lauded Bush's call for an end to Israel's "occupation" of Arab lands. But he objected to Bush's next statement, that the agreement "must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people."

Awad and other Palestinian officials said the line closely tracked recent statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that were perceived to undermine the claim of Palestinian refugees who once owned lands that are inside what is now Israel.

Just how much work there is to be done was apparent in Ramallah, seat of the Palestinian Authority, where Bush began his day and where five Palestinian parliament members led a few hundred anti-Bush demonstrators. The crowd chanted, "Bush, you are not welcome here," and held signs referring to him as a "supporter of the occupation" and a "killer of children."

They were set upon by Palestinian Authority police, who beat them with batons and fired tear gas. Mustafa Barghouti, one of the lawmakers, said that one demonstrator suffered a fractured shoulder and that police broke another's nose.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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