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Rockets hit Israel as Barack Obama meets Palestinians

  • @AlistairDawber

Barack Obama has arrived in Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas in what some commentators have dubbed ‘Palestine Day’.

The Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported scuffles between Palestinian demonstrators and local security forces, as demonstrators held up shoes - an insult in Arab culture - and called for Mr Obama to leave Palestine.

There have been demonstrations in Ramallah, and Bethlehem, the other West Bank town on Mr Obama’s itinerary ahead of the visit. There are few American flags flying in Ramallah, unlike in Jerusalem, where there are Stars and Stripes on almost every street in the centre of the city.

Rather than the smiles, bear hugs and handshakes for Mr Obama at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport yesterday, the welcome in Ramallah was much more low key. Mr Abbas shook the American president’s hand as he left his helicopter and Mr Obama inspected a guard of largely US-trained Palestinian security officials.

The two men are expected to discuss the security situation and the prospects for a two-state solution to end the decades old conflict with the Israelis. Mr Obama’s staff have downplayed the prospects of an immediate deal and the US president said at a press conference last night with the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that he had come to the region to listen.

Mr Abbas is likely to say that the Palestinian Authority is not willing to sit around the negotiating table with the Israelis until there is at least a freeze in the building of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Mr Abbas will raise the issue of conditions for Palestinian prisoners in Israelis jails.

Even before Mr Obama’s helicopter landed in Ramallah on its short trip from Jerusalem, two rockets fired by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip landed in the southern Israeli town of Sderot. Although there were no injuries, the attack underlined Mr Abbas’s challenging position – not only does he have very little control over the Gaza Strip, efforts at reconciliation with Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, could damage relations with the Americans. The US has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

Mr Abbas condemned “violence in any form, including firing of rockets”, according to a Palestinian spokesperson.

Gaza’s Hamas Prime Minister, Ismael Haniyeh, said this morning that he does not expect Mr Obama's visit to change the situation for Palestinians.

“We believe American policies perpetuate the Israeli occupation and settlements in Palestine under the slogan of peace,” Mr Haniyeh said in a statement. “The [Palestinian Authority] must realise that they have to abide by national principles and reconciliation.”

As Mr Obama arrived, there were reports of mobile phone signals being lost. According to those in Ramallah, the main Paltel Jawall network was completely down.