Clashes deter church-goers from joining in annual Christmas celebrations
Bethlehemites blame Trump for low turnout at Christmas eve march
Scouts in red berets playing bagpipes and drums conducted their annual march past Manger Square on Sunday, as the faithful prepared for midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity, the site of the birthplace of Jesus.
But the square—normally thronged on Christmas eve—was unusually empty. Most of those present were Palestinians, not foreign tourists. Palestinian University students handed out flyers wishing a merry Christmas and reminding visitors "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine."
Locals estimated there were fewer than half as many tourists as last year in Manger Square on Sunday afternoon. Many stayed away, deterred by the clashes that erupted after US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Bethlehemite shop-owners blame Mr 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 quashing tourism just as high season is approaching its peak.
"I'm not a politician but he hurt the business and the Middle East," said a woman who gave her name only as Mary. She was working in her husband's souvenir shop, which sells goblets with images of Jerusalem on them. "We have to celebrate. We like to live, not stay sad, even if there are killed and wounded," she added.
But Carol Haymour, a kindergarten teacher, said it was hard to celebrate this year. Asked if she was happy for Christmas, she replied, "Nus wa nus (half and half). You feel the tensions and people are afraid to come to Bethlehem. People from Palestine and outside are afraid to come and bring their kids."
Hanne Saada, 32, a Christian from the northern Israeli city of Acre, decided at the last minute that it was safe enough to visit. However, others had clearly thought differently as the hotel she was staying in had few guests, she said.
"There are a few tourists from Italy. It seems that many people cancelled.Trump's shocking everyone detracts from the joy of Palestinians. " 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."
"We can't say it's been hurt badly, but it's been relatively affected," said Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem chamber of commerce. Mr Hazboun said most people who visit on Christmas are pilgrims and not easily swayed into cancelling 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 Palestinian Authority tourism official, said that occupancy was full except for two hotels near Rachel's Tomb area, the flashpoint of the clashes. Several tourists interviewed by The National said their hotels were not full.
At the Jacir Palace Hotel, near Rachel's Tomb, occupancy was 35 per cent compared to a hundred per cent last year. The hotel had to close for five days because of the clashes and reopened a week ago. "Enough tear gas was fired around here to affect the entire country," said a staff member who asked for anonymity. "The soldiers also sprayed the hotel with a stinking chemical spray that smells like sewage. We had guests in the hotel when they sprayed it."
"Why the hotel? None of our staff threw stones. This is misery," he said
American tourist Greg Snyder 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'.
"With precautions, it's safe to walk around. We're trying to be aware. We keep our eyes open," he said.