President Obama walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqata Presidential Compound in Ramallah. PHOTO: Carolyn Kaster, AP
RAMALLAH, West Bank (USA TODAY) - President Obama said Palestinians "deserve an end to occupation" and an "independent state of their own," during a visit Thursday to a territory that Palestinians want as a nation.
Following a two-hour visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Obama's asserted that the borders for a Palestinian the state can only be settled through negotiations with Israel and that protect the national security of the Jewish state.
His visit was greeted by small protests and rockets fired by Palestinian terrorists from Gaza into Israel. The rockets landed in a town in southern Israel, but did not cause any injuries.
Hoping to move the Middle East peace process forward, Obama flew by helicopter Thursday the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government. Obama was met by Abbas, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' longtime peace negotiator.
It is the first time Obama has been to the West Bank as president, a territory conferred limited state status by the United Nations last November.
But he may have difficulty satisfying the demands of Palestinian Authority leaders who want him to pressure Israel into agreeing to Palestinian aims for an independent state.
In a press conference held with Obama on Thursday, Abbas said that peace was "possible" and "necessary," but he also said that it would not be achieved through wars and settlements -- or through violence. He said that the people of Palestine aspire to their rights.
Obama said that "the only way to achieve that was through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves." He said that it was important not to give up on the search for peace.
Palestinian protesters complained that Obama has done little to pressure Israel to cave on the issues that have led to a stalemate, such as where to draw the borders for the new state and which Jewish communities in the West Bank, known as settlements, should be made part of Israel proper.
Around 150 demonstrators chanted anti-American slogans and signs they held said they wanted weapons not diplomatic visits.
Security was extremely tight for the visit, but a few demonstrators managed to set up camp at Manara Square, the main square in Ramallah, where they held up placards declaring: "Obama, Stop Supporting Israeli War Crimes" and "US voted for occupation Nov. 29, 2012," a reference to the fact that the U.S. voted against partial statehood for the Palestinians in the U.N. that day. The vote passed, despite the U.S. opposition.
"America, first of all they want to stick by Israel," said Akram Rezeq, who owns a bread shop here." Obama, he's a good person. Palestinian people, we don't want to hurt anybody who comes here to visit us. We welcome them."
Bahjat Shehada, 35, a coordinator and translator for the German Embassy in Ramallah, said: "Obama's visit is nothing, it's just politics. All the U.S. presidents come here and nothing happens. The Palestinian Authority don't want peace with Israel. The people on the street want it but the political guys don't want it."
There was controversy even before Obama left Jerusalem on Thursday morning. Israel police said that militants in Gaza fired two rockets at southern Israel. The rockets exploded in the city of Sderot. One rocket landed next to a house causing damage, but no injuries. A second rocket landed in an open area.
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at the BESA Center, said Obama's meeting with Abbas, set to take place after Thursday's press conference, "has the potential for friction."
Obama "is clearly disappointed with the failure of Abbas to take any action to make it easier for Israel to go further in the peace process," he said.
In Steinberg's view, after Israel complied with the American administration's demand to freeze settlement building for 10 months, "Abbas did nothing to show Israelis that there is a positive dynamic to the peace process," providing a disincentive for further Israeli concessions.
But Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti told AFP in Ramallah that the Palestinians face an "emergency."
"We don't have time," Barghouti said. "Either the settlements are stopped immediately... or you can kiss the two-state solution goodbye."
Palestinian security forces are imposing a curfew on large parts of Ramallah during the visit, after which Obama will return to Israel to address a large group of Israeli university students.
On Thursday, the Ma'an News Agency reported that about 300 protesters shouted anti-Obama slogans outside the Palestinian Presidential headquarters as Obama and Abbas met, flanked by a large photo of The Temple Mount complex.
A group of Palestinian lawyers filed a request with the Palestinian Authority prosecutor-general demanding that Obama be arrested during his stay in Ramallah, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The lawyers said in their request that they wanted Obama apprehended because of the U.S. Army's responsibility for the death of Palestinian journalist Mazen Da'na in Iraq in 2003. Da'na, who worked as a cameraman, was shot by U.S. troops after he was mistaken for a terrorist.
In Israel on Wednesday, Obama praised the Palestinian Authority for keeping a lid on violence. He said he did not expect to make any breakthroughs during his visit on resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians but hoped to help restart the negotiation process.
His hope, he said in a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is "a solution that would allow Israelis to feel they have broken out of the current isolation they are in in this region," and "for Palestinians to feel they, too, are masters of their own fate, for Israel to feel the possibility of rockets raining down is diminished, that kind of solution we haven't seen."
"I actually believe Israel's security will be enhanced with a resolution to this issue," he said.
Early in his first term, Obama pushed Netanyahu to freeze the construction of new homes for growing populations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a sign of good will to the Palestinians. He complied, but felt he got no compromises in return from the Palestinians.
Abbas has insisted that the Palestinians will accept nothing less than an independent state in the entirety of the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the deal must include land on which Jewish cities have existed for decades. Israel says its capital of Jerusalem will never be divided and that it is willing to give vacant Israeli land to the Palestinians so Jewish cities in the West Bank can be made part of Israel.
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