U.S. President George W. Bush told journalists at a press conference in the West Bank’s capital city of Ramallah this morning that “You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped, but I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average Palestinian“.
Bush was speaking with ironic humor, of course.
A journalist had asked him a question which was inaudible — there were a number of audio problems in the press conference which were resolved in the simplest way possible, by having only the speakers’ audio on microphone — but the media-savvy and press-conference-experienced Bush considerately repeated the question for the benefit of the room:
“Yeah, he’s asking me about the checkpoints I drove through, and my impression about what it was like to drive through checkpoints. I can understand why the Palestinians are frustrated driving through checkpoints. I can also understand that until confidence is gained on both sides why the Israelis would want there to be, you know, a sense of security. In other words, they don’t want a state on their border from which attacks would be launched. I can understand that. Any reasonable person can understand that. Why would you work to have a state on your border if you weren’t confident that it’d be, you know, a partner in peace?”
Well, yes, that could be a reasonable observation — if there were just a blank space on Israel’s border now.
But, in fact, what’s there is an oppressed territory under military occupation. Grievances, humiliations, deaths, and more are accumulating hourly. Does that giving Israel security?
Maybe the occupation makes it possible for Israel to do things like build its “security fence” (a/k/a The Wall) on the territory of the other side — something that might be less easy to do if it were a sovereign state rather than an occupied territory. But the rage and resentment this causes does not increase anybody’s security.
“The checkpoints create frustrations for people. They create a sense of security for Israel; they create massive frustration for the Palestinians. You’ll be happy to hear that my motorcade of a mere 45 cars was able to make it through without being stopped [he did get some audience reaction at this point – giggles], but I’m not so exactly sure that’s what happens to the average person. And so the whole object is to create a state that is capable of defending itself, internally, and giving confidence to its neighbor, that checkpoints won’t be needed”.
Abbas had said, in his opening remarks at the press conference, that “Our Palestinian people, who committed to peace as a strategic option, want to see, through your support and your intervention, an end to its suffering and the suffering of its people and their families, and wants to move freely in their homeland, and develop their life and their economy without any obstacles that hinder that progress, and without a separation wall that fragments the land, and without settlements that is governing its land and future. We want to see a different future where prisons are not crowded with thousands of prisoners, and where hospitals are not crowded with tens of innocent victims every day, without checkpoints and queues of ordinary people who suffer from humiliation and siege”.
One fact is that most Palestinians don’t drive through checkpoints — whether it is hot, or cold, or stormy, they walk, on foot, whether they are old, or young, fit, or unwell, or tired, or carrying a heavy package, or a sick baby.
While Bush spoke about Israel’s security, there is very little security for the Palestinians — and this problem , too, is largely a function of the occupation. One issue mentioned in reporting — also by Israel’s YNet news — about Palestinian reaction to Bush’s visit was the nightly activity of Israeli Defense Forces in the West Bank: “Ahmed, a policeman responsible for directing the traffic in the city … said that ‘Even in Ramallah, apart from the past two days, the Israelis come in every night, raid houses and arrest people, and I don’t think Bush will confront them and their lobby on the last days of his term’.”
Ramallah is north of Jerusalem.
The same article reported significant honking in downtown Ramallah today — where three to four thousand Palestinan security personnel were deployed, and streets all around the Muqata’a presidential compound were blocked off for the Bush visit. YNet said that a honking truck driver told a Palestinian policeman who reproached him that “This is in Bush’s honor, we are honking for him”.
Later in the afternoon, during a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, south of Jerusalem, where Jesus is believed to have been born, Bush again acknowledged the commotion caused by security measures for the trip: “I want to thank the people of Bethlehem for enduring a presidential trip — I know it’s been inconvenient for you. I very much appreciate your tolerating my entourage. Some day I hope that as a result of a formation of a Palestinian state there won’t be walls and checkpoints, that people will be able to move freely in a democratic state. That’s the vision, greatly inspired by my belief that there is an Almighty, and a gift of that Almighty to each man, woman and child on the face of the Earth is freedom. And I felt it strongly here today”.
Bush met — apparently separately — with clergy from the three different Christian religious organizations that co-exist in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity: Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Franciscans. Afterwards, he said that “it’s been a moving moment for me and the delegation to be here at the Church of the Nativity. For those of us who practice the Christian faith, there’s really no more holy site than the place where our Savior was born. And I want to thank the government for arranging this trip (the Palestinian Authority Minister of Tourism, a Christian woman — demographics are important here). I also thank very much the three different churches for welcoming me here. It’s a fascinating history in this church, so not only was my soul uplifted, my knowledge of history was enriched”.
Earlier, in the press conference in Ramallah, Bush did speak about Palestinian security, but in a way that did not reassure the listener that he understood the problems for the Palestinians — nor their concern that the Palestinian Authority appears to be asked to guarantee Israel’s security first and foremost.
Israel wants the future Palestinian state to be totally demilitarized, and to have only lightly-armed police forces.
Bush did not take a clear position on this issue. In his remarks to the press today, Bush said that “General Dayton is spending a lot of time trying to help the President and the Prime Minister develop security forces that are effective. There’s no question in my mind the commitment to provide security for the average citizen is strong”.
This language is ambiguous — it is not clear whether or not Bush believes that Palestinian security should only provide internal policing functioning. Bush certainly did not say anything about a future Palestinian military force — which is at the moment excluded explicitly under the Oslo Accords which, though declared dead, still provide a lot of the structure of present legitimacy.
Bush went on to say that “The question is the capabilities. And the truth of the matter is there needs to be a fair amount of work done to make sure that the security forces are modernized, well-trained and prepared, with a proper chain of command to respond. And I will tell you I firmly believe the security forces are improving … by any objective measurement, the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank are improving. And so my message to the Israelis is that they ought to help, not hinder, the modernization of the Palestinian security force. It’s in their interests that a government dedicated to peace, and understanding the need for two states to live side by side in peace, have a modern force. It’s … very important for the government to be able to assure people that if there is a need, there will be an effective force to provide security. That’s just step one of having credibility with the people. And to the extent that Israeli actions have undermined the effectiveness of the Palestinian force, or the authority of the state relative to the average citizen, is something that we don’t agree with and have made our position clear”.
Bush volunteered some remarks about the necessity of having contiguous territory, undivided by Israeli settlements and supporting infrastructure: “Now, the vision of the Palestinian state is one of contiguous territory. As I said, you know, earlier in my administration, ‘You know, Swiss cheese [i.e., cheese with holes in it] isn’t going to work, when it comes to an outline of a state’. And I mean that. There is no way that this good man [Bush made a slight indication at that moment with his head and the hand to President Abbas, standing by his side] can assure the Palestinians of a hopeful future if there’s not contiguous territory. That position is abundantly clear, to both sides”.
Then, Bush immediately came back on subject: “Therefore, the ultimate vision of course is that there’ll be no checkpoints throughout the Palestinian state-to-be. This is the issue. We’re working through how to gain enough confidence on both sides so that checkpoints won’t be necessary, and a state can emerge. My judgment is, I can understand frustrations. I mean, I hear it a lot. I heard that, you know, the chief negotiator spent two hours at a checkpoint — and all he was trying to do was to go negotiate. I can see the frustrations. Look, I also understand [Bush gives a big sigh here], you know, that people in Israel — and, the truth of the matter is, in the Palestinian territories, the average citizen, wants to know whether or not there’s gonna be protection from the violent few who murder … So, you know, these checkpoints reflect reality”…
One non-nissue reported by the press was whether or not Bush would pay his respects at the mausuleum and gravesite of the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat — which was just a few dozen meters from where Bush and Abbas spoke to the press. Of course Bush would not do so — and no one who listened to any of Bush’s statements about Arafat following the outbreak of the Second Intifada at the end of September, 2000, would even imagine such a thing. Comments from Palestinians deploring Bush’s reported position on this point appear solicited by the journalists themselves, rather than spontaneous expressions of personal opinion.
Another slightly more probable issue was the flap, reported by Ali Waked in Israel’s YNet news, about framed photos of Arafat, which hang in many places in the Muqata’a and in Palestinian Authority offices — as well as in Gaza , alongside of photos of President Mahmoud Abbas (recognized even by Hamas as the legitimately-elected Palestinian President — in large part because Hamas wants its own electoral victory in early 2006 to be recognized as legitimate as well). In today’s news conference, there was a portrait of Arafat hanging over Bush’s head — but it was high over Bush’s head (and there was a matching portrait of Abbas hanging over Abbas’ head). These framed pictures were not visible in most screen shots, which showed only the Palestinian and American flags behind Bush. But Al-Jazeera Television frequently panned out to show the portraits, up near the overhead lights…