President Barack Obama’s last day visiting Israel took him back to the West Bank for a cultural stop in Bethlehem. There he toured the Church of the Nativity, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The visit lasted less than an hour, before Obama’s motorcade whisked him off to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport to fly to Jordan. The brevity of the outing – along with just a few hours in Ramallah the day before – angered Palestinians, who felt the president ignored their plight, their desire for an independent state.
“He didn’t offer anything,” said an exasperated Palestinian official with knowledge of the meeting Obama had with Abbas on Thursday. “The problem is, he’s not showing any willingness or vision to implement his vision on the ground.”
“Obama left the way he came,” he added. “We’re wondering why he came.”
In a press conference with Abbas, Obama declined to go further than saying that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank were not constructive for peace talks. That fell well short of a declaration that they’re illegal, the viewpoint of the international community. Palestinian leaders have maintained that they will not engage in peace talks without a freeze on construction and expansion of Israeli settlements.
“It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands, to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank, or to displace Palestinian families from their home,” Obama said in a speech to Israeli university students in Jerusalem on Thursday. “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.”
In the West Bank village of Beit Ijza, the Gharib family’s story exemplifies the anger felt by Palestinians seeing settlements expand and encroach on their land.
With seven brothers and three sisters, the family owns a house now surrounded almost on all sides by the Givon HaHadasha settlement. The settlement started as a small cluster of homes in the valley below. But over 30 years it has climbed the hill, surrounding the home. Ten of the family’s original 25 acres were confiscated, and almost all the rest are behind a fence that requires a military permit to access.
The home is circled by fences 20 feet high, with a narrow pathway leading to it from the village of Beit Ijza.
“It’s like we’re in prison,” one of the brothers, Mahmoud Gharib, said. “We have cameras, gates, fences, walls.”
“People in jail have easier conditions than this,” he added.
Asked why they stay in such difficult circumstances and whether they consider selling, the brothers said they and their father before them had been offered blank checks before.
“This is my homeland, this is my house,” Mahmoud said. “The Israelis are stealing the land day and night. I’ll only go from here to my grave.”
Fifteen acres of their land, much of it olive groves, lie beyond the Israeli security fence. They need a permit from the army to access it by crossing through a fence and across a road. Mahmoud complained that the soldiers often show up hours late when they go to harvest their olives, and force them to leave before sundown.
While the Gharib brothers spoke with ABC News, a settler appeared on the other side of the fence. Avi Atias, a 24-year-old construction worker, said they two communities had had problems over the years but live relatively peacefully side by side.
“I can’t see it that way,” he responds when asked why the Gharib family is so angry, arguing that Jews were on this very land thousands of years ago.
“They have the right to stay here if they want. But if it was my decision, I would [not want to live like that],” he said.