As Christmas nears in Bethlehem, Trump’s Jerusalem shift looms large

Locals in the West Bank birthplace of Jesus say protests against the US recognition of Israel’s capital have driven away tourists

A mural resembling the work of elusive artist Banksy, depicting US President Donald Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap, adorns Israel's West Bank security barrier in Bethlehem, August 4, 2017. (Nasser Nasser/AP)
A mural resembling the work of elusive artist Banksy, depicting US President Donald Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap, adorns Israel's West Bank security barrier in Bethlehem, August 4, 2017. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital looms large in Christmas festivities this year in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.

Some food vendors, sellers of holiday trinkets and a leading hotelier in biblical Bethlehem say Palestinian protests, triggered by what many here view as a provocative show of pro-Israel bias, have hurt their Christmas business.

Yet Bethlehem also offers a stage for a Palestinian rebuttal: Banners proclaiming Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Palestine have been draped over facades on Manger Square as a backdrop for Christmas TV broadcasts to a global audience.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is keenly felt — perhaps even more so at Christmas — in Bethlehem, just a few miles (kilometers) south of contested Jerusalem.

Israel’s West Bank security barrier — built by Israel to thwart a strategic onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers in the Second Intifada 15 years ago — cuts into Bethlehem and a segment of it has become a tourist magnet in its own right. Its cement slabs are covered with works by international graffiti artists such as Banksy and pro-Palestinian slogans left by visitors.

While Palestinians try to draw attention to the barrier when foreigners pour in for Christmas, Trump’s policy shift on Jerusalem two weeks ago has emerged as the dominant theme this year. It went against an international consensus that the fate of the city should be determined in negotiations. Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem houses major Jewish, Christian and Muslim shrines, and Palestinians seek it as a future capital.

In an address December 6 from the White House, Trump defied worldwide warnings and insisted that after repeated failures to achieve peace, a new approach was long overdue. He described his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the seat of Israel’s government as merely based on reality.

Trump stressed that he was not specifying the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in the city, and called for no change in the status quo at the city’s holy sites.

Tourists walk in Manger Square outside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, December 19, 2017. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP)

The move was hailed by Prime Minister Netanyahu and by leaders across much of the Israeli political spectrum. But the declaration was condemned worldwide, and triggered clashes in the Palestinian territories between stone-throwers and Israeli soldiers.

The Hamas terror group, which seeks Israel’s destruction, called for a new intifada against Israel and allowed thousands of Gazans to clash with Israeli troops at the Gaza border fence in the days that followed the announcement. Eight Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire, most on the Gaza border, and scores were wounded during the clashes.

In Bethlehem, the fallout was felt immediately.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was to have received US Vice President Mike Pence, a devout Christian, in Bethlehem, but canceled after the US pivot on Jerusalem. The snub came as Abbas shifted from cooperating with the US to rejecting Washington as a peace broker.

Meanwhile, Bethlehem’s flagship luxury hotel, the 250-bed Jacir Palace, closed because of frequent nearby clashes.

General manager Marwan Kittani said the hotel had been fully booked for Christmas, but that he is now assessing day by day if he can reopen.

Palestinian activists have called for more protests.

In Manger Square, next to the Church of the Nativity built over Jesus’ traditional birth grotto, some merchants blamed Trump for a drop in business.

Two souvenir shop owners selling nativity scenes and tree decorations carved from olive wood said they hadn’t had any customers by early afternoon.

Mahmoud Salahat, who sells pomegranate juice on the square, said his main source of income — Arab citizens of Israel — largely stayed away from Bethlehem during the past two weeks, apparently fearing trouble on the roads.

Palestinian officials took a more upbeat view.

The Christmas season caps a banner year for tourism in the Palestinian territories, with 2.7 million visitors in 2017, compared to 2.3 million in 2016, said Tourism Ministry official Jiries Qumsieh. Despite some cancellations, Bethlehem’s 4,000 hotel rooms were more than 90 percent booked for Christmas, he said.

People pass by the ‘The Walled Off Hotel’ and the Israeli security barrier in Bethlehem, March 3, 2017. (Dusan Vranic/AP)

Christmas also offers an annual opportunity for Abbas to court international sympathy for longstanding Palestinian demands for statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 war. Abbas rival Hamas, which dominates Gaza, seeks a state in all of historic Palestine, including what is now Israel.

The vast majority of Palestinians are Muslims, but Abbas — like the late Yasser Arafat before him — values close ties with the Christian minority, regularly attending Christmas Eve mass at the Church of the Nativity, which is broadcast live.

This year, TV footage will likely show two large banners hanging from roofs in Manger Square, reading: “Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine.”

Activists also plan to circulate a petition to Christmas visitors in support of Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and distribute stickers reading: “We (heart) Jerusalem, the capital of Palestine,” said organizer Munther Amira.

Earlier this week, two dozen protesters assembled near the square’s towering Christmas tree, holding white candles and photos of Pence and Jason Greenblatt, a member of Trump’s Mideast team.

“Bethlehem welcomes the messengers of peace, not the messengers of war,” read the captions under the photos.

The protesters the held the candles to the photos and burned them.

Amira said it was a protest against US policy, not the American people.

Some tourists seem baffled by the politics and are mainly drawn to the Nativity basilica, currently under renovation and partly covered by scaffolding.

German pilgrim Ludmilla Trifl said she reserves judgment because she doesn’t know enough about the conflict.

The security barrier at the entrance to Bethlehem “does not look good,” she said. Israel says the barrier is to keep out Palestinian terrorists, while Palestinians call it a land grab.

Along the barrier, a different type of tourism has emerged.

Palestinians burn the picture of the US Vice President Mike Pence during a protest against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, December 17, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

The area around the Walled-Off Hotel, a Banksy-linked guesthouse that opened in March, has become a center for political street art. A recent wall piece said to have been created by Banksy shows two angels, one with a crowbar, on either side of a gap between cement slabs, each trying to widening the opening.

A nearby shop called “Wall-Mart” offers stencils and spray paint — with prices for slogan sizes ranging from $14 to $26 — to help visitors to leave their mark.

On a recent morning, Australian Farzanah Fazli shook spray cans, filling in a stencil she had taped to the wall. Slowly, the words “Once upon a time, there was humanity” emerged — meant to express her view that Israeli policies have dehumanized the Palestinians.

Fazli, 30, a London-based accountant, said leaving that message was the highlight of her Middle East trip, even if it is eventually painted over by others.

Graffiti shop employee Wanda Handal, 21, said artists have transformed her neighborhood.

“Back in the day, it was the creepy street,” she said. Now, “the street is alive, art everywhere.”

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