On Christmas Eve, Palestinians, many of them dressed as Santa Claus, staged a rally in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank protesting against to the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israeli forces used tear gas and stun grenades against the protesters near an Israeli military tower in Bethlehem – the ancient city widely acknowledged as the traditional birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Throughout Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the West Bank pilgrimage and tourism was noticeably down over the Christmas holiday season as protests and clashes over President Trump’s December 6th announcement continued, which also included plans to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem in order to reflect the change in status.
The AFP reported that even many locals have stayed away from centrally located Christmas celebrations at traditional gathering places this year due to the clashes:
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 tourists on Christmas Eve, but clashes between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli army in the past weeks have kept people away this year.
Since Trump’s announcement a total of 12 Palestinians have been killed as a result of both confrontations with Israeli security and Israeli airstrikes on Hamas positions in Gaza.
— RT (@RT_com) December 24, 2017
Last week Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to meet Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, which also initially included plans to tour religious sites in places like Bethlehem; however, the entire trip was canceled after essentially falling apart as multiple Arab leaders and Middle East Christian representatives slammed the US decision. Notably, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled what was to be a December 19 meeting with Pence, but the vice president’s office framed the trip cancellation in terms of needing to stay in Washington in case his vote was needed to pass Trump’s reform bill last week.
Though eyewitness reports suggest tourism is significantly down over the fresh protests and clashes, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism is trying to keep up an image of a busy as usual holiday season. According to the AFP:
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.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Christians had promised to make their opposition to both the White House decision and Israeli policies visible during the holiday season through things like joining mass protests with their fellow Arab Palestinians and intentionally removing traditional public displays of Christmas. The Christian population within the West Bank and Gaza is at about 50,000 while within Israel there are about 135,000 Arab Christians – most belonging to the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches, though many more have emigrated abroad.
A sizable segment of the population of Bethlehem is still Christian (15-20%), and many locals have long engaged in protests dressed as Santa in order to attract international media attention in connection with the holidays.