Ramallah, West Bank
Abu A’asem brews pot after pot of his specialty Arabic coffee, despite the pouring rain. His corner stand at the heart of Ramallah is always busy, no matter the weather, but his future as a Palestinian is very much as gloomy as the skies above.
“I am 40 years old and I keep seeing the same thing. Many leaderships have come and gone and the situation remains the same,” he says.
Despite US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas just a few hilly kilometers away on Tuesday, A’asem says he is sure Palestinians are not a priority for Washington.
“His visit is only intended for Israel,” he says. “It’s just good manners to pass by since he is in the neighborhood.”
Blinken’s visit came in a month that has seen the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces at an eight-year-high. Ten of those deaths occurred because of a raid by Israeli forces in Jenin on Thursday. Tensions quickly spiraled and the next day, a Palestinian man shot and killed seven Israelis outside a synagogue.
Friday night’s shooting attack took place in the Israeli settlement of Neve Yaakov, an area Israel considers to be a neighborhood of Jerusalem, but which is deemed illegally occupied land by most of the international community.
Blinken sought to lower the temperature, even before he arrived in Israel, while reinforcing the US ironclad commitment to Israeli security. He also said the US, specifically the Biden administration, remains committed to a two-state solution.
Speaking alongside Abbas in Ramallah, Blinken said it was necessary first “to take steps to de-escalate, to stop the violence, to reduce tensions, and to try as well to create the foundation for more positive actions going forward.”
But that, he said, was “not sufficient” by itself. “It’s also important to continue to strive not only for reducing violence but ensuring that ultimately Israelis and Palestinians alike enjoy the same rights, the same opportunities. What we’re seeing now from Palestinians is a shrinking horizon of hope, not an expanding one, and that, too, we believe needs to change.”
Yet A’asem is not putting his faith in the United States’ top diplomat.
“He might offer us something here and there but it’s all empty promises,” he says. “Since day one of the occupation it’s the same promises and same things and they are failure and empty promises.”
Down the road, the smell of cashews and almonds being roasted at Rifa’at Yousuf’s shop cuts through the cold winter air. He too is not optimistic.
“It’s gone from bad to worse,” Yousuf, 44, says of US policy towards Palestinians.
“(Blinken’s) visit is not welcome for us Palestinians,” he adds, accusing the secretary of state of enabling Israeli occupation and supporting what he says are Israel’s violent actions in the occupied West Bank. “We, as Palestinian people, we are against any visit from anyone who supports Israel in this way.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu vowed this week that Israel would “strengthen” settlements in response to the shooting attacks in Jerusalem, a position Blinken cautioned against on Tuesday.
But speaking with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, Netanyahu said people can get “hung up” on peace negotiations with the Palestinians, saying he has opted for a different approach.
“When effectively the Arab-Israeli conflict (comes) to an end, I think we’ll circle back to the Palestinians and get a workable peace with the Palestinians,” he said.
Asked what concessions Israel would grant Palestinian territories, Netanyahu responded: “Well, I’m certainly willing to have them have all the powers that they need to govern themselves. But none of the powers that could threaten (us) and this means that Israel should have the overriding security responsibility.”
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The disillusionment, hopelessness and the feeling of abandonment is difficult to swallow for most in Ramallah, but it’s especially tough for the Palestinian youth, who see no future for their people or themselves.
“We are very upset,” 18-year-old Nihad Omar says. “Every day we see someone become a martyr or a prisoner, it’s the same cycle and the numbers just keep increasing, they are not going down.”
Analysts on both sides say the Israeli government’s promises that it will respond to violence with an “iron fist,” coupled with the despair felt by many in Gaza and the West Bank, have turned the region into a powder keg with an ever-shortening fuse. Echoing that feeling, Omar says there’s only so much pressure Palestinians can and are willing to bear.
“The occupation is surrounding us from all over and not letting the Palestinian people breathe,” he says.
Hanan Ashwari, a Palestinian rights advocate and former member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, says the frustration with the United States and Israel felt by those CNN spoke with is valid, and very much widespread through Ramallah and the West Bank.
“(Blinken) wants to integrate Israel in the region, which means, you know, sideline the Palestinians, reward Israel and normalize the occupation,” Ashwari says. “Then they talk about being in favor of two-state solution, they pat themselves on the shoulder and they go home.
“That’s very ironic, because they stood aside and they allowed Israel to destroy the two-state solution by destroying the Palestinian state, stealing land, killing people, demolishing homes, and terrorizing, through settlers and the army, the Palestinians,” she adds.
The disillusionment, Ashwari says, is not just with the United States, but also with the current Palestinian leadership.
“We have had a leadership that is not just rhetoric but has held on to positions of power and has failed in many ways to deliver to the people even its own policies,” she explains. “I think it is time to have elections and to have a new leadership chosen by the people enjoying the legitimacy of the election.”
Most we spoke with in Ramallah agree.
“The Palestinian leadership tries to appease the Palestinian people and bring good, but they are handicapped and incapable of delivering,” Omar says.
“The people who are around [current Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas are unfortunately more cooperative with the Israelis than him,” Yousuf says. “I wish we had someone with the spirit Yasser Arafat had.”
But some do still give Abbas and his leadership some credit.
“The Palestinian leadership tries to bring solutions for the Palestinian people, but they face many challenges,” coffee-stand owner A’asem says.
Those challenges to a more prosperous Palestinian future, including the establishment of a Palestinian state, they say are roadblocks purposefully put in place by Israeli politicians. For Ashwari, Israeli policies towards Palestinians, now enacted by what is the most right-wing government in the country’s history, are slowly but surely destroying the viability of a two-state solution.
“Israel is making sure there is no viable sovereign Palestinian state by expanding settlements, stealing more land,” Ashwari says. “This is unacceptable. The more settlements you build, the less land you have for the Palestinians.”
On the streets of Ramallah, Palestinians are acutely aware of that reality.
“We hope for a two-state solution but what we see on the horizon and what we see on the ground there is nothing to indicate a two-state solution [is viable],” Yousuf says. “Palestinians don’t have power or opinion or choice, the two-state solution is only words, we aspire for a two-state solution, but this is becoming a dream, an unrealistic dream.”
“There won’t be a two-state solution,” Omar agrees. “With the Israeli occupiers never.”
As he brews another pot of coffee, a pensive A’asem realises the dream of a Palestinian state doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.
“Maybe the two state (solution) has become an unrealistic dream,” he concedes, seemingly heartbroken by the acknowledgment.
But that sense of defeat is only a momentary lapse before a fiery comeback.
“We Palestinians, we are an emotional people, we are generous, and we will be generous to the Jewish people when they come as guests,” he says. “But with an occupier there will never be peace.”