There were no cheers in the Ranoush Café in Gaza City when Barack Obama was inaugurated. A few dozen young Palestinians watched the proceedings on one of the place's four televisions, listening to Al-Jazeera's Arabic voice-over as they sucked on Hubbly Bubblies, which are big water pipes with burning charcoal in the bowl. Afterward, the patrons said they were tentatively pleased. "He will be such a change from Bush, and maybe he won't be under Israel's belly like all the other presidents," said Mahmoud Saqiya, 24, an IT engineer. If there was a consensus, that was it: cautious optimism. Many noted favorably that Obama spoke of reaching out to Muslims; indeed, he was the first president to use the word "Muslim" in an Inaugural Address.
From Gaza to Goa, people have invested Obama with their hopes. Take Omar Tawel, a 24-year-old computer-science graduate who, like most young men in Gaza, is unemployed. During the campaign, Tawel got so fired up that he organized dozens of his English-speaking friends and began cold-calling voters in America using VOIP on his laptop. "You wouldn't believe how many hang-ups there were," he told NEWSWEEK. He never heard from the Obama campaign, but an Arab-American group called and asked him to please stop. "They said it wouldn't help, a lot of people already think he's a Muslim from Africa."
Now Tawel is despondent. He feels betrayed that Obama, as president-elect, refrained from speaking out after Israel pummeled Gaza. And yet, at this café in a shell-pocked building, Tawel's view was roundly ridiculed. "He has many problems to solve," said accountant Rafael Ali, 31. "We need to be patient." Several others noted that it couldn't be a coincidence that Israel declared its ceasefire only two days before Obama's swearing-in—just enough time to pull most of its troops out of Gaza.
"Ah, he'll screw the Palestinians," said Marouf Dagmoush, a burly 200-pounder, plopping unbidden onto the arm of my chair. He sat too close to be friendly, though he bristled with bonhomie. "The Israelis are just taking a week off for this ceremony." My translator confided that Dagmoush had already asked whether I was an American and where I was staying. "My family's the one that kidnapped Alan Johnston," he boasted, referring to the BBC's Gaza bureau chief who was held for three months in 2007 by militant members of the Dagmoush clan. "Maybe I should kidnap you," he said. I wrote that down. "Don't do that, I'm only kidding."
Very funny. As the old saying goes, Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. It was a grim reminder that Gaza is still run by terrorists from Hamas, who were popularly elected. Until Palestinians do something about that, there will be limits to what Obama can do for them.