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Palestinians protest U.S. veto of resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy

By Joel Greenberg
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 10:45 PM

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Angry Palestinians staged a protest here Sunday against the United States' veto Friday of a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlement policy, with participants denouncing President Obama and predicting that the move will harm Washington's standing across the roiling Middle East.

The gathering, attended by about 300 supporters of the ruling Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and government employees, reflected broader public disappointment here with the veto, the first cast by the Obama administration at the United Nations.

In several interviews across Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority's seat of government, people said the U.S. move confirmed their view that Washington was not a fair mediator in the conflict with Israel. They accused the Obama administration of a double standard: supporting democracy in other Arab countries while backing Israeli settlement and occupation in the Palestinian areas.

"Our message to America, which says it supports freedom in the Arab world, is: Where are the freedoms of the Palestinian people?" Raed Radwan, the local Fatah leader, told the crowd gathered in Manara Square. "Washington, where is the democracy you are talking about?"

Protesters chanted: "Listen, Obama, listen, we're a people that won't kneel down! Obama out! Settlers out! Occupation out!"

Muhammad Khalil, another speaker, accused the United States of "raising its hand in a veto against the right of our people to an independent Palestinian state." He vowed that there will be "no negotiations in the shadow of the criminal bias" in favor of Israel.

Palestinian leaders have rejected further negotiations with Israel as long as it continues building settlements in the West Bank, arguing that such an activity amounts to a seizure of territory they seek for a future state. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the U.S. veto made it clear that the only way to peace is through direct negotiations "and not through moves in international bodies, which are designed to bypass direct negotiations."

Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said after casting the veto that although Washington strongly opposes Israel's settlement policy, adopting the resolution risked hardening positions and encouraging both sides to stay out of negotiations. The draft resolution denounced the settlements as illegal and said they were an obstacle to peace efforts.

The Obama administration's veto should "not be misunderstood to mean we support settlement activity," Rice said.

Abbas resisted strong pressure from Washington, including phone calls from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, to withdraw the draft resolution, anxious to avoid a backlash at home at a time of uprisings across the Arab world.

Palestinian officials said privately that stepping back would have run the risk of triggering anti-government demonstrations such as those in neighboring Arab countries.

At the Sunday protest, demonstrators praised Abbas for resisting U.S. pressure and carried his picture. Palestinians seemed united behind their government in denouncing the veto, with broader protests planned for Friday, dubbed by organizers as a "day of rage."

"People see it as an American double standard: expressing support for the people of Egypt but acting against the people of Palestine," said Abdul Rahman al-Haj Ibrahim, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University. "It's the same concept: democracy and freedom. This attitude will radicalize public opinion against the United States."

Othman Azawna, who owns a home supply store, said he had hopes when Obama took office that he would "stand with the Palestinians." But, Azawna said, he has been disappointed. "Obama is just like Bush. After two years, what has he done for us?" he said.

Ahmad Assaf, a Fatah spokesman, summed up his movement's message: "We want the U.S. administration to be a sponsor of the peace process, not a sponsor of settlement and occupation."

Greenberg is a special correspondent.

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