Protesters, pessimism await Bush as PA beefs up security

Senior officials tells Post visit itself significant because it underlines Bush's determination to pursue his pledge to see Palestinian state established.

PA security great 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
PA security great 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
When and if US President George W. Bush visits the West Bank later this week, his motorcade might not be able to pass through the main highway in Bethlehem. The reason: two tents that have been set up in the middle of the road by the families of three Fatah gunmen killed four years ago by the IDF. The tents were erected about two weeks ago at the entrance to the village of Al-Khader in protest of the Palestinian Authority's failure to help the families rebuild their homes, which had been destroyed by the IDF. Although a large section of the highway has since been blocked to traffic, the PA security forces have refrained from interfering to avoid a confrontation with the angry family members. Hundreds of PA policemen and security officers deployed throughout the city on Sunday to secure celebrations for the Orthodox Christmas did not even try to approach the protesters' tents. On Sunday, the families and friends of the three slain gunmen - all members of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades - said they would step up their protest in the next few days with the hope of attracting the attention of the media during Bush's visit. "Bush won't be able to pass from here because we will block his motorcade," said the brother of one of the Fatah gunmen. "We will stay in our tents, and no one will be able to remove us from the middle of the street - no one." Another relative told The Jerusalem Post: "Bush is not welcome here. The Palestinians consider him an enemy. He's coming to help Israel. He doesn't care about the Palestinians. We wish someone would shoot him." The protest illustrates the huge challenges facing the PA security forces on the eve of Bush's visit. Many Palestinians here and in other West Bank cities voiced skepticism over the visit, saying they did not expect much from the Bush administration because of its "bias" toward Israel. Hamas and other extremist groups have condemned Bush's upcoming visit to the West Bank. In their opinion, Bush is coming to the region to give Israel a green light to invade the Gaza Strip and step up its military offensive against the Palestinians. Muhammad Ja'afar, the owner of a local grocery, said he was disappointed with Bush because he didn't want to lay a wreath on former PLO leader Yasser Arafat's tomb in Ramallah. "We heard that Bush is refusing to honor Yasser Arafat," he said. "So why should we give him any respect? We call on [PA] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to boycott Bush." In the nearby Dheisheh refugee camp, the mood was even more pessimistic. "There's nothing Bush can do for us," said shopkeeper Abu Ahmed. "Bush is an enemy of the Palestinians and all the Arabs." High school student Majdi al-Aramin said that if he had the opportunity, he would "kill Bush with my own hands." A few Palestinians are nevertheless optimistic, especially in Manger Square, where thousands of Orthodox Christians gathered to celebrate Christmas. "We hope President Bush will bring peace to the Holy Land," said Mary Hazboun, a housewife and mother of three. "We hope he will put pressure on Israel to give us all our rights so that we can live in peace and security next to our Jewish neighbors. We are tired of the wars and violence." Although Bush's final plan has yet to be announced, PA sources said his visit to the West Bank would include three cities: Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho. But, the sources added, the plan might be changed at the last minute due to Bush's tight schedule and security concerns. PA officials in the Mukata presidential compound have been working late into the night for the past few weeks to ensure the visit's success. Together with scores of US diplomats and security officials, the PA has been keen on reviewing every detail related to Bush's visit. Asked whether Bush was planning to visit the Mukata, a top PA official said: "We still don't know, but we have been instructed to prepare for all possible scenarios, including a visit to the Mukata." For the PA leaders in Ramallah, the Bush visit is a great opportunity to show the world that the Palestinians are capable of hosting any world leader and ensuring his safety. This would be Abbas's first time hosting a US president in the West Bank. Abbas's hope is that the visit of the leader of the major superpower will boost his standing not only among the Palestinians, but also in the international arena. The PA is planning to deploy more than 5,000 policemen for the occasion. This would be the largest security operation ever launched by Abbas's forces. PA security officials said they were even considering imposing a curfew on some areas that Bush is expected to visit. The PA is fully aware that Bush's brief visit to the region will not achieve a breakthrough in peace talks with Israel. However, senior PA officials told the Post that the visit itself was significant because it underlined Bush's determination to pursue his pledge to see a Palestinian state established before the end of his term. "This is a very symbolic visit," said one official. "It comes only weeks after the Annapolis peace conference. The visit shows that President Bush is serious in his efforts to reach a peace agreement before the end of the year." He said the PA was hoping to turn the issue of settlement construction into a major one during Bush's visit. "We want Bush to see for himself that the settlements are a major obstacle to peace," he explained. "This will be at the top of the agenda of the talks."