Palestinian militants pitched a protest camp Wednesday on the site of a contested Jewish settlement, in an act of defiance as US President Barack Obama began an historic visit.
Israel’s plan to build in a strip of West Bank land outside Jerusalem called E1 has sparked a major international backlash, with experts saying it could wipe out hopes for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
Around 200 Palestinians erected some 15 tents on the controversial site to send a “message to Obama to tell him: Obama — enough with bias and support for Israel,” said one of the organisers, Abdullah Abu Rahma.
Israeli soldiers ordered the activists to evacuate the area by 1800 GMT, warning they would otherwise be ejected by force, Abu Rahma said, adding that a “closed military zone” had been declared.
Observers say Israeli plans to build in E1 connect the Maaleh Adumim settlement with east Jerusalem and would effectively prevent the future establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state, dooming the two-state solution.
Experts say the plan to build in E1 will isolate the Arab sector of the Holy City and cut the occupied West Bank in two.
The E1 settlement plan has been on hold since 2005 following heavy US pressure. Plans by Israel to push the construction process through in December unleashed an international outcry.
“Our message today to Obama is… this is our land and we are opposed to settlements and occupation which are backed by the US administration,” Abu Rahma told AFP.
Palestinian peace negotiator Nabil Shaath, meanwhile, published an op-ed message to Obama in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, urging him to prove his commitment to a two-state solution by turning pledges into deeds.
“We could have saved lives and political capital if President Obama had shown the determination to create the right environment for meaningful decisions leading to a two-state solution,” he wrote.
“Now, rather than calling for the resumption of a meaningless ‘peace process,’ we Palestinians expect real action on the ground.”
Shaath added that Obama had disappointed Palestinians who once warmed to his calls for an end to settlement building.
“President Obama appeared to give up on his goal,” he said.
Palestinian-Israeli peace talks have been deadlocked for more than two years.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas wants to renew peace talks in tandem with a freeze on Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and in east Jerusalem.
Obama arrived for his first visit as president to Israel earlier Wednesday, vowing an “eternal” alliance with the Jewish state and saying that “peace must come to the Holy Land.”
But he has also made clear he has come to listen to both Israeli and Palestinian sides, rather than to launch any new peace initiative.
On Thursday, Obama travels to Ramallah on the West Bank to meet Abbas, and on Friday he will tour the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
“Unfortunately, President Obama will only visit Palestine for a few hours,” said Shaath.
In the southern West Bank town of Hebron, meanwhile, dozens of people wearing masks of Obama and holding up pictures of the late US civil rights leader Martin Luther King demonstrated demanding the opening of a road closed to Palestinians since 1994.
“Stop apartheid,” one banner read.
Five of the protesters were arrested by the Israeli army, an AFP correspondent said.