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As Trump visits Bethlehem, the hunger strike is the elephant in the room

The prisoners’ fast has gripped the Palestinian street, and the US president, the Palestinians say, could gain trust simply by showing he’s aware of it

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinians in Bethlehem show support for prisoners hunger striking in Israeli jails as US President Donald Trump meets with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the city, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)
Palestinians in Bethlehem show support for prisoners hunger striking in Israeli jails as US President Donald Trump meets with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the city, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

BETHLEHEM — On Monday, a day before US President Donald Trump’s slated visit, this West Bank city was in total shutdown. But the reason for the closed shops and empty streets had nothing to do with the world’s most powerful man.

The hunger strike of more than 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners in Israeli jails had reached its 36th day, and in support, a general strike was called across the West Bank, and for Arab citizens within Israel, by the prisoners’ support committee and the High Follow-Up Committee — the official body representing Israeli Arabs.

Trump is to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the presidential palace in Bethlehem, which holds deep significance as the site where Christians believe Jesus was born.

Few pictures of or messages to Trump were hoisted in the main square or streets. Still, one banner proclaimed that “the city of peace welcomes the man of peace,” along with photos of Abbas and Trump.

Akram Alayasa, a spokesman for the Palestinian Prisoner Affairs Ministry, was one of more than 100 people who remained at a protest encampment in front of the Church of Nativity on Monday after 10 p.m.

The protest camp, where family members of strikers gather daily, was reportedly the reason Trump could not visit the church, which is held in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus.

Alayasa said he believed the reason few photos of Trump had been put up in the city was that Palestinians would be “too embarrassed” to celebrate his arrival.

Palestinians will likely be pleased if Trump merely acknowledges the hunger strike, which has been the most important issue on their agenda ever since it was started last month by Marwan Bargouthi, a Fatah leader and terror chief serving multiple life-sentences for orchestrating the murders of Israelis in the Second Intifada.

Israeli border guards and undercover police detain a Palestinian protester during clashes at the entrance of the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 19, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)
Israeli border guards and undercover police detain a Palestinian protester during clashes at the entrance of the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 19, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Musa AL SHAER)

Trump’s visit to Israel and the West Bank is part of his first trip abroad as president, and follows an initial leg in Saudi Arabia, where he urged Islamic leaders to confront extremism.

He has also spoken of reviving long-stalled peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians, but few specifics have emerged of how he intends to do so.

Hossam Zomlot, an aide to Abbas, said that “if President Trump wants to mediate and leads us to a historic agreement, a major agreement, we are ready to be his partners”.

Alayasa said that Palestinians were fatigued by the failed push of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and wanted to see something concrete.

“After eight years of Obama and his nice speeches, there is still nothing. Palestinians are wishing and hoping America will understand their cause,” he said.

Palestinian Fatah movement supporters speak to a shop owner as they roam the streets of the West Bank town of Bethlehem to monitor a general strike called for by activists throughout the Palestinian territories and among Arab Israelis, in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger-strike in Israeli jails, May 22, 2017. (AFP/Musa AL SHAER)
Palestinian Fatah movement supporters speak to a shop owner as they roam the streets of the West Bank town of Bethlehem to monitor a general strike called for by activists throughout the Palestinian territories and among Arab Israelis, in support of Palestinian prisoners on hunger-strike in Israeli jails, May 22, 2017. (AFP/Musa AL SHAER)

An economic stimulus package that Israel approved just before Trump arrived, which included increasing the opening hours for the land crossing into Jordan, approving construction in Area C and expanding a few industrial zones, was not well-received in Ramallah.

“They do not meet even the minimum requirements for the development of the Palestinian economy,” said Nabil Abu Rudeinah, a spokesperson for Abbas.

Majdi Khaldi, an adviser for Abbas, told the Voice of Palestine radio Tuesday that in the short term, renewed negotiations must address the Palestinians’ economic problems, linked to continued conflict and Israeli restrictions on trade and movement, which Israel says it imposes for security reasons.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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