Bethlehem's Palestinians expect nothing from Biden, say it's humiliating

In Bethlehem, two shopkeepers, a member of the Palestinian National Security Forces, a local Fatah activist and a cab driver express a range of hope, cynicism and disappointment in Biden's visit.

A Palestinian at Manger Square, Bethlehem on July 13, 2022 (photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)
A Palestinian at Manger Square, Bethlehem on July 13, 2022
(photo credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)

Raji Qumsiyeh says he sees no reason why anyone in Bethlehem should be excited about US President Joe Biden’s visit to the city, which is scheduled for Friday.

“Since the early ’70s, I’ve seen many presidents and world leaders come and go, but nothing has changed,” said Qumsiyeh, 82, owner of the King David Souvenir Store in Manger Square. “If anyone thinks that this president is going to change anything, they have no idea what they are talking about. It’s all kalam fadi [nonsense].”

Biden, who arrived in Israel on Wednesday afternoon, is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday at noon at the Convention Palace after visiting Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

But Qumsiyeh, who hails from a large Christian family in the nearby town of Beit Sahur and whose shop is located across the street from the Palestinian Police Station, said he and most of Bethlehem’s residents know that “nothing good” will come out of the Biden-Abbas meeting.

Biden vs. Trump

Palestinian Authority forces at Manger Square, Bethlehem on July 13, 2022 (credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)Palestinian Authority forces at Manger Square, Bethlehem on July 13, 2022 (credit: KHALED ABU-TOAMEH)

He also believes former US president Donald Trump was the only one who could have achieved peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Trump was a strong man, and he was going to solve the conflict,” Qumsiyeh said. “He was the only president who could have made peace. Biden, on the other hand, is too weak.”

“The people don’t care about Biden,” he added. “They are worried about the [security] measures. These measures are bad for business and come after tourists and pilgrims started returning to Bethlehem. Now, we will be under curfew for the next two days.”

As Qumsiyeh was speaking, a white pickup truck belonging to the Palestinian Security Services arrived at Manger Square. Five officers dressed in military outfits got out of the vehicle and joined a group of policemen in blue uniforms stationed a few meters away from the entrance to the Church of the Nativity.

By Wednesday noon, only a few tourists could be seen at Manger Square, large parts of which had been blocked with police barriers.

“Bethlehem welcomes all its guests, even if it’s the president of the US, a country that is not particularly friendly toward the Palestinian people,” said one member of the Palestinian National Security Forces, who identified himself only as Emad. “Our job as security officers is to enforce law and order and provide security to all our visitors, regardless of their nationality or religion.”

Ahead of Biden’s visit to the city, Palestinian officials said they were not pinning high hopes on the US president’s meeting with Abbas.

When Abbas meets Biden

According to the officials, the Palestinians have not received any indications that the Biden administration would fulfill most of its promises to them, especially regarding the reopening of the US Consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, DC, and the resumption of US financial aid to the PA.

The officials said Abbas would raise these issues with Biden during their hour-long meeting.

Abbas, they said, would also demand that the US exert pressure on Israel to halt construction in the settlements and refrain from “unilateral steps” that sabotage the prospects of establishing a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.

Abbas is also expected to affirm the Palestinians’ readiness to resume peace negotiations with Israel, the officials said.

“President Abbas will make it clear that stopping settlement construction and land confiscation, as well as all illegal unilateral measures, are the only way to create a positive political climate that would pave the way for restoring the political horizon [between the Palestinians and Israel],” one official said.

In Bethlehem, however, many residents and shopkeepers laughed each time the term “peace process” was mentioned. They were equally cynical about Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.

“There is no such thing as a peace process,” said Mohammed al-Ta’mari, owner of a shop of traditional Palestinian clothing behind the Mosque of Omar, west of Manger Square. “The leaders can’t do anything for peace. They don’t care about the people. They just care about their jobs and seats.”

“The leaders can’t do anything for peace. They don’t care about the people. They just care about their jobs and seats.”

Mohammed al-Ta’mari, owner of a shop of traditional Palestinian clothing in Bethlehem

Ta’mari said he and his friends just want to see more tourists return to Bethlehem and that Israel will allow more Palestinians to work in Israel.

“Biden is coming here not because he wants to help the Palestinians, but in order to make peace between Israel and the Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia,” Ta’mari said. “People have stopped believing in peace processes. They just want to do business and have a good life. We want to be able to visit Jerusalem.”

Abdullah Kamal, a local activist with the ruling Fatah faction, said he also had no illusions regarding the Biden visit.

“It’s no secret that Biden is coming to the region to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said. “The Palestinian cause is not at the top of his list of priorities. The Americans don’t care about the Palestinians, and the Arabs have turned their back on us.”

Kamal said he and other residents of the city were hoping that Biden would be able to see how Bethlehem is “surrounded by walls and fences,” a reference to the security barrier constructed by the IDF during the Second Intifada in response to a wave of suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Israelis.

“Our biggest mistake is that we keep believing that America is on our side,” said cab driver Jamal Hammam. “When will we understand that America is on the side of the Jews and does not care about the Arabs or the Palestinians? Biden is spending two days with the Israeli leaders and will only spend less than one hour with President Abbas. If I were President Abbas, I wouldn’t meet with him because this is humiliating for all Palestinians.”