A Palestinian marching band takes part in a Christmas parade outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, December 2017.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Scouts in red berets playing bagpipes and drums conducted their annual march past Manger Square Sunday and the faithful prepared for midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, at the site of the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
These were signs of normalcy.
But the “Donald Trump effect” was easily discernible in Bethlehem on Sunday too. The square – normally thronged on Christmas Eve – had plenty of vacant space. And most of the people who were there were Palestinians, not foreign tourists.
Palestinian university students handed out flyers wishing a “Merry Christmas” and reminding visitors that “Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine.”
“Trump is the first reason this is a sad Christmas,” said Khulud Ilayan, a social work student at Al-Quds Open University who handed The Jerusalem Post’s
correspondent a flyer. “I see less people and people are sad. All of the people here don’t like that man.”
The day after the December 6 announcement that the US recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, clashes broke out across the West Bank, including at the northern entrance to Bethlehem.
Protests in Bethlehem during 'Day of Rage' on December 15, 2017 (Seth J. Frantzman)
Bethlehemite shop owners blame Trump not only for siding with Israel at the expense of Palestinian hopes for an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital, but also for igniting the clashes that are dampening tourism.
“I’m not a politician but he hurt the business and the Middle East,” said a woman who identified herself only as Mary who was working in her husband’s souvenir shop, which sold goblets with a picture of Jerusalem buildings, including the Dome of the Rock. Still, she said, “We have to celebrate. We like to live, not stay sad, even if there are killed and wounded.
“We have to pray to God for peace because the prince of peace was born in this city,” she said. “We have to have peace, not war.”
Locals estimated the number of tourists in Manger Square Sunday afternoon as being less than half of last year, as many stayed away, deterred by the clashes and tensions.
Hanne Saada, 32, a Christian from Acre, decided at the last minute that it was safe enough to come. “Trump’s shocking everyone detracts from the joy of Palestinians,” she said. Still, she added, “It is amazing to find yourself in such a sacred place. It is very moving. We hope for all the best in the world. Despite all the suffering in the world we feel joy in this place. Jesus was born and world peace was born. He came for peace. We expect the whole world to be at peace and to stop wars. God created a beautiful world and we must love it.”
Saada said her hotel had few guests. “There are a few tourists from Italy. It seems that many people canceled.”
Nadim Hussein, a Muslim NGO worker, came from Ramallah as he does every year.
“Jerusalem is our capital and nothing will change that. We will attend every event in Palestine despite Trump. Palestinian Muslims will participate with Christians in this event.”
Added Liana Haddad, a Bethlehem resident who is a lecturer of public health at Al-Quds Open University: “We celebrate despite Trump. Every year we are happy on Christmas despite the situation. Christmas is peace and love and we hope to have peace and love in this country.”
Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem chamber of commerce, said of Bethlehem tourism this Christmas: “We can’t say it’s been hurt badly but it’s been relatively effected.” He said that most who come for Christmas are pilgrims and are thus not easily deterred into canceling like ordinary tourists. But he voiced concern about January. “For sure there are partial cancellations for January but if they will be big or medium we do not know. Everything went normally today and maybe that will help change the image for good.”
Jeries Qumsiyeh, a PA tourism official, said that occupancy was full except for two hotels near Rachel’s Tomb area, the flashpoint of the clashes. But several tourists interviewed by the Post said their hotels were not full.
At the Jacir Palace Hotel, near Rachel’s Tomb, occupancy was said to be at 35%, compared to a hundred percent last year. The hotel had to close for five days because of the clashes and reopened a week ago. A staffer said that soldiers sprayed the hotel with a stinking chemical spray that smells like sewage. An IDF spokeswoman said she was checking if soldiers had used such a spray in the clashes around the tomb.
Greg Snyder, 22, who studies at the University of Wyoming, said he and his friends were glad they decided to come rather than cancel. “We feel very welcomed so far. People joke with us about Trump and ask us if we are Trump supporters or tell us, ‘We don’t like Trump.’”
“We’re Christians so being here brings a new significance and connection with Christ,” he said. “We are trying to connect with the area.”