US symbols seen on every street corner, signs, people's clothing.
By DAOUD KUTTAB
I had to rub my eyes a few times to be sure that what I was seeing was real. The setting: downtown Ramallah. The event: International Youth Day. The participants were wearing white T-shirts with logos on the front and back and dark red hats.
Palestinians from all over the West Bank were participating in the event organized by a network of youth NGOs called "We are Palestine." The theme this year was "We will be as much as we can dream."
The day's activities began with a carnival, starting from the well-known Manara Square, passing through the streets of Ramallah and ending at the Orthodox Club.
Discussions throughout the day included talks about drugs and unemployment, a basketball game for disabled youths and various concerts. In addition to the troupe Bailasan and Tagareed, the evening ended with two rap concerts, by a group called G-town and with Blood in Street providing the finale.
WHAT SURPRISED me was not the event or the enthusiasm or the number of the youths participating in it. After all Palestinians under 25 constitute the majority of the population in the West Bank.
My big surprise was to see the public sponsor of the event. The red white and blue logo of USAID with the words "From the American people" appeared everywhere including on the back of participants' T-shirts.
The fact that USAID was sponsoring a youth event might not be totally strange in itself. But to have the American logo brandished all over the streets of Ramallah, on outdoor signs and on the back of a moving sea of people was really a sight to see.
IT WAS only a few years ago that young people, possibly many of the same ones celebrating International Youth Day this week, were demonstrating in the same Manara Square in Ramallah against Israel and the US. Anti-American slogans used to be the norm at almost all Palestinian youth-led demonstrations.
So what's changed? Have Palestinians become less politicized or has anti-American sentiment mellowed?
I decided to conduct my own unscientific poll among the hundreds of youths gathered in Ramallah. for this year's International Youth Day.
My question was simple: Has it become acceptable among Palestinians to wear a hat or a T-shirt praising Americans?
The answer most respondents had can be summarized in two words: Barack Obama. The newly-elected president has done more to change America's image among Palestinians than any policy declaration or political activity.
People were careful to note that they are not blindly supporting the US all of a sudden. Nor did they believe that everything the new American president said would be carried out. But it was clear that the presence of a son of an African immigrant in the White House has had its effects on the psyche of Palestinian youths.
Other reasons were stated. Young Palestinians have had it with the constant and intensified political rhetoric. While no one I spoke to was any less nationalistic, many said they were not willing to wait forever for political change and that there is more to life than following the never-ending political discourse.
While some expressed disillusionment with many in the Palestinian leadership, others had words of praise for the current Palestinian prime minister, and still others expressed hope for the newly-elected Fatah leadership.
It is not clear whether my observations reflect a change in the thinking of Palestinian youth or whether it is an isolated incident, but I don't remember a day in the last 20 years (or more) that I could see American symbols being worn without those wearing them or people around them batting an eyelid.
The writer is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. He is general manager of Community Media Network Radio Al Balad.
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