Vanessa O'Brien and Michele Chabin, Special for USA TODAY
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Hoping to move the Middle East peace process forward, President Obama flew by helicopter on Thursday the short distance from Jerusalem to Ramallah, the seat of Palestinian government.
Obama was met by Mahmoud Abbas, the white-haired president of the Palestinian Authority that governs the West Bank, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians' longtime peace negotiator. It is the first time Obama has been to the West Bank as president, a territory conferred limited state status by the United Nations in November 2012, and that the Palestinians hope to make into their nation.
But he may have difficulty satisfying the demands of Palestinian Authority leaders who want him to threaten Israel into agreeing to Palestinian aims for an independent state.
In a press conference held with Obama on Thursday, Abbas said that peace was "possible" and "necessary," but he also said that it would not be achieved through "wars" and settlements" -- or through violence. He said that the people of Palestine aspire to their rights.
Obama said that Palestinians "deserve an end to occupation" and an "independent state of their own." He said that "the only way to achieve that was through direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians themselves." He said that it was important not to give up on the search for peace.
Still, many Palestinians have protested his arrival, saying he has done little to pressure Israel to cave on the issues that have led to a stalemate, such as where to draw the borders for the new state and which Jewish communities in the West Bank, known as settlements, should be made part of Israel proper.
Security was extremely tight for the visit, but a few demonstrators on Thursday managed to set up camp at Manara Square, the main square in Ramallah, where they held up placards declaring: "Obama, Stop Supporting Israeli War Crimes" and "US voted for occupation Nov. 29, 2012," a reference to the fact that the U.S. voted against partial statehood for the Palestinians in the UN that day. The vote passed, despite the U.S. opposition.
"America, first of all they want to stick by Israel," said Akram Rezeq, who owns a bread shop here. " Obama, he's a good person. Palestinian people, we don't want to hurt anybody who comes here to visit us. We welcome them."
Bahjat Shehada, 35, a coordinator and translator for the German Embassy in Ramallah, said: "Obama's visit is nothing, it's just politics. All the U.S. presidents come here and nothing happens. The Palestinian Authority don't want peace with Israel. The people on the street want it but the political guys don't want it."
OBAMA IN ISRAEL: Gaza militants fire at Israel during Obama visit
There was controversy even before Obama left Jerusalem on Thursday morning. Israel police said that militants in Gaza fired two rockets at southern Israel. The rockets exploded in the city of Sderot. One rocket landed next to a house causing damage, but no injuries. A second rocket landed in an open area. The Haaretznewspaper reported that Obama would address today's firing of rockets during his press conference with Abbas.
Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at the BESA Center, said Obama's meeting with Abbas "has the potential for friction."
Obama "is clearly disappointed with the failure of Abbas to take any action to make it easier for Israel to go further in the peace process," he said.
In Steinberg's view, after Israel complied with the American administration's demand to freeze settlement building for 10 months, "Abbas did nothing to show Israelis that there is a positive dynamic to the peace process," providing a disincentive for further Israeli concessions.
But Palestinian legislator Mustafa Barghouti told AFP in Ramallah that the Palestinians face an "emergency."
"We don't have time," Barghouti said. "Either the settlements are stopped immediately... or you can kiss the two-state solution goodbye."
Palestinian security forces are imposing a curfew on large parts of Ramallah during the visit, after which Obama will return to Israel to address a large group of Israeli university students.
On Thursday, the Ma'an News Agency reported that about 300 protesters shouted anti-Obama slogans outside the Palestinian Presidential headquarters as Obama and Abbas met, flanked by a large photo of The Temple Mount complex, which is holy to Muslims and Jews.
Ahead of Obama's arrival, hundreds of Palestinians on Wednesday gathered in Ramallah to protest against Obama, who is visiting the region on a three-day trip ending Friday.
The protest was organized by the radical Islamist group Hizb ut Tahrir, which seeks Islamic states throughout the region. A group of Palestinian lawyers filed a request with the Palestinian Authority prosecutor-general demanding that Obama be arrested during his stay in Ramallah, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The lawyers said in their request that they wanted Obama apprehended because of the U.S. Army's responsibility for the death of Palestinian journalist Mazen Da'na in Iraq in 2003. Da'na, who worked as a cameraman, was shot by U.S. troops after he was mistaken for a terrorist.
Demonstrators in Ramallah chanted: "Oh malicious Obama, defender of the state of the Jews, we hereby declare, America is the mother of terror. Obama go back, Palestine is not for sale."
In Israel on Wednesday, Obama praised the Palestinian Authority for keeping a lid on violence. He said he did not expect to make any breakthroughs during his visit on resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians but hoped to help restart the negotiation process.
His hope, he said in a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is "a solution that would allow Israelis to feel they have broken out of the current isolation they are in in this region," and "for Palestinians to feel they, too, are masters of their own fate, for Israel to feel the possibility of rockets raining down is diminished, that kind of solution we haven't seen."
"I actually believe Israel's security will be enhanced with a resolution to this issue," he said.
Early in his first term, Obama pushed Netanyahu to freeze the construction of new homes for growing populations in Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a sign of good will to the Palestinians. He complied, but felt he got no compromises in return from the Palestinians.
Abbas has insisted that the Palestinians will accept nothing less than an independent state in the entirety of the West Bank with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the deal must include land on which Jewish cities have existed for decades. Israel says its capital of Jerusalem will never be divided and that it is willing to give vacant Israeli land to the Palestinians so Jewish cities in the West Bank can be made part of Israel.
Michele Chabin contributed to this report from Jerusalem