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Trump declaration on Jerusalem dampens Christmas cheer in Bethlehem

As Bethlehem gears up for the busy Christmas period, some visitors are staying away because of heightened tensions following U.S. President Donald Trump's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital city, CBC Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel reports.

West Bank city has seen violent clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces since last week's announcement

Manger Square in Bethlehem, located near the Church of the Nativity, had no Christmas lights for three days after U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The declaration is impacting tourism in Bethlehem. (Samer Shalabi/CBC)

If you ask residents of Bethlehem who is the Scrooge who has cast a pall over this year's Christmas celebrations, the answer is nearly unanimous: U.S. President Donald Trump.

"I'm sorry, but this year Christmas, I think it will not be very happy," said Khaled Khatib, an English teacher. "And that's because of Trump."

Trump's decision last week to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with plans to relocate the U.S. Embassy there, continues to anger Palestinians who say Trump's move ignores their claim to the city.

Palestinians want to establish the capital of a future state in East Jerusalem. 

Bethlehem has seen some of the most intense clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces since Trump made his declaration last Wednesday.

A Palestinian protester throws back a gas canister fired by Israeli forces during a recent protest in Bethlehem. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Young Palestinian men have thrown stones and other projectiles at the Israeli security forces, who have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and — in some cases — live fire.

The violence has been playing out right next to the security barrier erected by Israel to reduce the number of attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. In Bethlehem, the wall cuts through the northern part of the city in the occupied West Bank.

Bethlehem artists have gained international notoriety for their graffiti that often tackles themes relating to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian people. One recent mural depicts Trump with his face crossed out — signalling that the president is not welcome. 

A mural depicting U.S. President Donald Trump painted on the Israeli separation wall in Bethlehem. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Palestinian officials said the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, will not meet with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence when he visits the Middle East later this month. 

A group of Polish visitors to Bethlehem was forced to change hotels on the weekend, as their lodgings were on the street where the clashes have been taking place.

Some visitors 'afraid to come'

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman maintains his city is safe, but he acknowledges that some tourists are concerned about security.

"A lot of [tourists] who were coming to Bethlehem … to celebrate Christmas and participate in Christmas ceremonies during the season [have] cancelled their visits and they are afraid to come," Salman told CBC News.

The mayor blames a recent warning by U.S. officials to "maintain a high level of vigilance" when visiting the West Bank for keeping some visitors away.

Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman blames Trump's statement on Jerusalem for declining tourism. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Personal protest

Trump's declaration last week infuriated Khaled Kanan, who owns the Square restaurant and coffee shop in Manger Square in central Bethlehem.

Kanan, who says he has been waiting all his life for peace with Israel, thinks a negotiated settlement is now less likely, because Trump "does not want peace."

Kanan recently took down the Stars and Stripes from above the entrance to his restaurant, where the Maple Leaf and other European flags continue to fly. 

The owner of the Square restaurant and coffee shop in Bethlehem recently removed the U.S. flag from among other flags hanging outside the eatery. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

"I don't like to put [the U.S.] flag up in my restaurant, because Mr. Trump doesn't like my flag," he said. "I"m very, very angry at him."

The municipality of Bethlehem also took its own shot at the president.

For the three days after Trump made his declaration about Jerusalem, the city turned off the Christmas tree lights in Manger Square in protest.

The lights were lit again on the weekend.

"Because we want to celebrate Christmas," Mayor Salman said. "We will not allow Trump and his group to destroy our Christmas."

Bethlehem officials are expecting fewer foreign visitors to attend the annual Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity.

The lights on the Christmas tree in Manger Square were turned back on after a protest against Trump's statement about Jerusalem. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

As Palestinians reflect on 2017, it will mark another year in which their dream of achieving their own state seemed to suffer.

While Salman said this year has been "much worse than others," the mayor remains optimistic. 

"We live with the hope of a better future, and the hope of having our freedom and independence," he said. "We believe that we are going to reach that goal, but we are not sure how much time that will take."

About the Author

Derek Stoffel

CBC News Middle East correspondent

Derek Stoffel is the Middle East correspondent for CBC News. He has covered the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, reported from Syria during the ongoing civil war and covered the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. He has also worked throughout Europe and the U.S., and reported on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.