Jerusalem row dampens Xmas in Bethlehem

AFP
Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem yesterday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering.
AFP

Palestinian scouts played drums and bagpipes as Christmas celebrations began in Bethlehem yesterday, but many tourists stayed away with tensions still simmering following Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The December 6 announcement by US President Donald Trump unleashed demonstrations and clashes, including in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where Christians marked the birth of Jesus in a midnight mass.

On Bethlehem’s Manger Square, hundreds of Palestinians and tourists gathered in the cold near a huge nativity scene and Christmas tree to watch the annual scout parade.

They took pictures as a marching band made its way through the square towards the Church of the Nativity, built over the spot where tradition says Mary gave birth to Jesus.

The square usually throngs with tourist on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.

Twelve Palestinians have been killed since Trump’s declaration, including a 19-year-old who died of his wounds yesterday, nine days after he was shot during a Gaza protest.

Nahil Banura, a Christian woman from Beit Sahur, a town near Bethlehem, said Trump’s decision had made the run-up to Christmas “miserable.”

“People are only going out to vent,” said the 67-year-old, whose granddaughter wore a Santa Claus hat and clutched a pink balloon.

As few as 50,000 Palestinian Christians make up just around 2 percent of the predominantly Muslim population of the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, arrived in Bethlehem after noon and shook hands with local personalities on his way to the Church of the Nativity.

Pizzaballa said last week that “dozens” of foreign visitors had canceled their Christmas trips after Trump’s announcement.

But Israel’s tourism ministry has said Christmas preparations have not been affected, and it expects a 20 percent increase in the number of Christian pilgrims this year compared with 2016.

An Israeli police spokesman said that extra units would be deployed in Jerusalem and at the crossings to Bethlehem to ease the travel and access for the “thousands of tourists and visitors.”

And the Israeli army officer in charge of the Bethlehem area said that while tensions had been high in the area following the Jerusalem announcement, he did not expect trouble on Christmas.

“We’ve reinforced our troops, and are ready for any scenario,” Lieutenant Colonel Benny Meir said.

Israel seized east Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in moves never recognized by the international community.

Palestinians view east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and interpreted Trump’s statement as rejecting their right to a capital in east Jerusalem.

In a statement before Christmas, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said Trump’s announcement “encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, both separated for the first time in over 2,000 years of Christianity.”

Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, said that Christmas this year is a “mix of sadness and joy” because of the US decision on Jerusalem.

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