RAMALLAH — At first, the anti-Obama demonstration felt like a street carnival. The weather was beautiful and street vendors were selling fresh strawberries and green almonds. Men with red fezzes were pouring tamarind juice to quench the thirst of the protesters gathered at Manara square.
It was an upbeat medley of men and women, mostly from the Palestinian left. Bareheaded women and clean shaven men chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans, accompanied by a slew of European solidarity protesters, their fair skin flushed in the blazing sun.
The focus, at least in the beginning, was on Palestinian prisoners. Fathiya Ajaj from Jerusalem stood holding a picture of her son, tears rolling down her cheeks. Ahmad Ajaj is currently serving a 115-year sentence in a California penitentiary after being convicted of involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing.
“Ahmad is innocent,” said his brother Omar, carrying a framed photo of Ajaj as a young man. “We want to send a message to Obama that my brother had nothing to do with anything that happened in America. He was there by coincidence.”
Behind Omar, protesters chanted “America is the head of the snake,” and “go home, you Satan.”
At eleven o’clock, as a black helicopter began its descent, the demonstrators started marching toward the presidential palace, the Muqata. Now, it was the youth who were leading the chants, which were quickly becoming more fiery.
“The people want RPGs, not [security] coordination and the CIA,” shouted one man. A young woman, unscarved and wearing tight jeans, cried out “no way to peaceful [resistance], only bullets and missiles.”
Midway to the presidential palace, a block of Palestinian policemen, five rows of large men in black uniforms holding hands, prevented the protesters from proceeding. Another row of policemen formed from behind, cutting the procession in two.
In the middle, between the two groups, stood a bearded man holding a sign in English, reading “This is Palestine state. No entry.”
“Quite honestly, after the American veto in the UN on Palestinian statehood, you are not welcome here Obama,” said the man, who identified himself simply as Samir from Deir Yassin, now working as a taxi driver in Ramallah.
Nancy, a middle-aged woman from New York, was wearing a white T-shirt with a large Palestinian flag. She told The Times of Israel that as an American she felt responsible for the “expropriation and expulsion of Palestinians from their land.”
“Obama is worse than Bush because he knows better. He knows what American money for Iron Dome does. He knows what E1 means. He’s not an ignoramus like George Bush. As a young man he understood the situation in Palestine; he is a complete hypocrite.”
If Nancy could understand Arabic, she would have noticed that behind her the chants had begun to change. The anti-Obama demonstration was quickly becoming an anti-Abbas one, tinted with the colors of the Arab Spring. Plain-clothes security men were becoming edgy, and heated verbal exchanges were breaking out between the youth and some older men.
“Down with the military regime,” shouted the students at the policemen. “O freedom, where are you? The soldiers of Dayton [the American general charged with training the Palestinian security forces] stand between us!”
Europeans and Palestinians stood around, chatting. Near them, the students chanted “O Abbas, what is wrong with you? What has Obama done to you?”
Hamas was modestly represented at the demonstration, too, with four students wearing green scarves around their shoulders.
“The American president came here to divide Palestinians,” Sa’id Qasrawi, the spokesman of the Islamic bloc at Bir Zeit University, said. “He said there can be no peace with Hamas, and that he cannot support the Palestinian Authority while Hamas is present. We say: There can be no peace while the usurper entity Israel is present. We are the true owners of the land, and the Zionists must leave the land to its authentic owners.”
The United States was actively blocking Palestinian reconciliation talks, Qasrawi added, and the Palestinian Authority must prioritize Palestinian interests over its loyalty to the Americans.
As the demonstration tapered off with the crowd walking slowly back downtown, a man stood next to a clothing shop, holding up his fingers with the victory sign.
“Long live Abu-Hussein!” he shouted.
“Who is Abu-Hussein? asked two photographers, passing by.
“Obama!” the man grinned triumphantly.