x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Palestinian frustration grows over lack of help

Palestinians feel they have been left in Limbo over the failure of Obama and Arab leaders to help them make progress in the peace process. Hugh Naylor reports from Ramallah

RAMALLAH // After watching two years of uprisings in neighbouring countries, Abdulaziz Kettana, like many Palestinians, is frustrated.

He longs for the day when Arab governments will use their political leverage to step up their help for the Palestinian cause.

At the moment, he says, they seem too preoccupied with weathering a season of tumult in the region to expend much political capital on helping Palestinians to realise their dream of a state.

Until that day, Mr Kettana believes he has no choice but to look on as Israeli settlements chip away at Palestinian land.

His once-high expectations of Barack Obama, who was scheduled to visit Ramallah today, have plummeted. He now speaks of the US president and Arab governments in the same despairing breath.

"I don't think Obama can, or even wants to, help us solve our situation," said Mr Kettana, 26, a secondary-school teacher in the West Bank city. "But the Arab states can't either - they're too distracted with their own issues right now."

Those distractions have put the Palestinians in an odd limbo, one in which a sitting US president ventures to the West Bank to see for himself the Palestinians' predicament yet says he intends to exert no pressure to help ease their difficult situation.

Mr Obama has instead chosen to "listen" during his three-day tour of Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, White House aides say. That posture reflects Washington's preoccupation with other countries in the region, say observers.

"The issues facing Syria, Egypt and Tunisia - all are distracting attention and putting people on their toes over issues that do not pertain to the Palestinians at the moment," said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst in the Jordanian capital, Amman.

The result, Mr Kamhawi said, is a "strange situation where the Obama administration feels it can come to the region without building any expectations for peace".

The disappointment of Palestinians with Washington and Arab capitals has been made more acute by the misbegotten assumption that as the Arab Spring gained momentum, it would yield governments more reflective of popular sentiment and less beholden to Washington.

Instead, Cairo's Islamist government has struggled with an economic crisis that has made it wary of angering the US and other financial donors that have strong diplomatic ties with Israel for fearing of losing access to aid.

Meanwhile, Arabian Gulf countries are focused on aiding anti-regime rebels in Syria. As a result, the Palestinian Authority must struggle even more than usual to have Arab pledges of financial aid fulfilled.

"I think there's a sense now that the Arab states can't really do much in terms of pressuring America or Israel on the Arab-Israeli conflict at the moment," said Imad Salamey, a professor of international studies at Beirut's Lebanese American University.

The situation could change with a "more democratic Arab world - when and if - that puts pressure on the US over this issue in a unified manner", said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia University. This month, he published a book highly critical of Washington's role in the peace process entitled Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East.

"But if it happens, that is in the future, and politicians generally think of what is right in front of them at the moment."

Palestinian activists in Ramallah said they would not sit silently while the leaders in the region get their houses in order. They have planned demonstrations to protest against Mr Obama's visit.

"I think what's going on in Syria, Egypt and Tunisia is that everyone is preoccupied with internal and domestic issues," said Amra Amra, 26. "But that doesn't mean we should wait on them until something happens, because we need to focus on ourselves and strive for our own reforms and change."

"Or else," she added, "nothing will change here."

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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