As the motorcade of US President Donald Trump zoomed down Hebron Road to the Palestinian Authority government headquarters in Bethlehem, around 100 presidential guards watched the bystanders closely.
A hand reached into a pocket. A well-armed guard squinted. A cellphone emerged and the guard sprang to action.
“No pictures,” the man in the sleek black uniform called out, rushing over and deleting the photograph from the phone.
Why pictures weren’t allowed wasn’t clear. Even well before the US president arrived, taking any pictures of the street was prohibited. A guard flipped through my phone to make sure I hadn’t taken one on the sly.
While Trump passed, everyone remained silent. Mostly it seemed the crowd that gathered was just waiting for permission to cross the road.
The streetlights where the motorcade passed were decked out in US and Palestinian flags. That road was the only slice of the city where an American flag could be found Tuesday.
The motorcade’s path also offered the only opportunity in the city to catch a glimpse of a picture of Trump. It was on a cheap sign, where he was depicted alongside the face of Abbas. The sign read: “The city of peace welcomes the man of peace.” The colors were faded and there was a rip in the fabric just below the word man. The sign could have been hanging for months, though in reality it was probably put up the night before Trump’s visit, as no one could recall it being there before.
Right under the Trump-Abbas sign was another one in Arabic that read: “The disgraceful Balfour Declaration was the beginning of our Nakba.”
Inside Bethlehem’s presidential headquarters, an elaborate ceremony with swords and fancy marching was put on for Trump. But none of the city’s residents could watch, other than on television.
Back in the center of the city, in the main square just outside the Church of the Nativity, a small protest of around 70 people, many of them children, were demanding Trump pay attention to the 1,000 or so — Israel says fewer — Palestinian security prisoners who have been on a hunger strike in Israeli jails for the last 37 days.
The prisoners, one-third of whom are reportedly directly responsible for killing Israelis, are demanding, among other things, better visitation rights, an end to imprisonment without charges, and public phones.
“Listen, listen, Trump, the prisoners will not kneel,” the protesters shouted.
One of the protesters was Munther Amira, 36, who held a sign saying, “There is no peace without freedom for our prisoners.”
Amira said he knows it’s unlikely that Trump will pressure the Israelis to accede to the demands of the hunger strikers, but “we are raising our voice through him.”
He said that when Trump was first elected, he burned pictures of him, but “now I am confused.”
Amira pointed out, appreciatively, that Trump hasn’t followed through on his promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and refused to be accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit to the Western Wall.
“I would not say he is welcome, but I would not say he is unwelcome either,” Amira said.
PA Minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraqe, who was at the protest, said, “We want Trump to intervene on the Israeli side so the demands of the prisoners can be met.”
The market of the old city in Bethlehem was unimpeded by security for Trump’s visit. The locals were aware that Trump was in town, but didn’t really make much of it.
The US administration has made improving the Palestinian economy one of its goals in the Middle East. In his speech on Tuesday, standing alongside Abbas, Trump emphasized the importance of “unlocking the potential of the Palestinian economy.”
Mohammad Shalash, a Bethlehem shop owner, seemed to agree.
“If business is good, the people will relax,” he said. “We are tired of war, but the talks are just games.”
Adib, a medical student from the city, expressed a sense of despair and fatigue from US mediation in the peace process.
“I don’t think there will be good results from Trump’s visit. He isn’t the first American president to visit Palestine, and nothing has happened,” he said.
That was a recurring sentiment in Bethlehem on Tuesday.
Ramadan Abdalkareem, a 19-year-old medical lab student from Ramallah, who listened to Trump and Abbas speak over the radio, said, “You could say Obama was almost half-Muslim, and he still couldn’t succeed. The politicians just always say the same thing.”