US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to declare Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has taken joy out of Christmas for the people in the holy land who witnessed a low key celebration today with thousands of tourists choosing to stay away from festivities.
The Manger Square, where tourists and locals generally jostle for space before the midnight mass, looked forlorn with signs of despair visible on the faces of sellers and street vendors.
Michael Kumsiyeh, a souvenir shop owner in the Manger Square, squarely blamed President Trump for the doom and gloom.
“He makes a problem. He doesn’t make any solution,” Kumsiyeh said.
“Its a bad situation. No celebrations, no tourists and everybody is unhappy,” lamented Kader, a coffee seller.
Trump declared Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 6 which sparked violence in the region and worldwide protests.
Coming, as it did, just weeks before Christmas, the announcement forced thousands of expected pilgrims to pull out of the celebrations in the holy land.
The sparsely crowded Manger Square, the centre of celebrations, had two big signs declaring “Jerusalem will always be the eternal capital of Palestine”, a message which spoke of the prevailing mood.
Besides protests by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which controls the West Bank city, cold and rainy weather also dampened spirits, forcing people to leave the gloomy surrounding as the day progressed. Jerusalem is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Israelis, it is home to the Temple Mount, the site of the two biblical temples and the holiest place in Judaism. it is also home to Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest place in Islam and a national symbol for the Palestinians.
The Trump administration has said its decision on Jerusalem does not mean it is pulling out of the Middle East peace process and that the US would support a two-state solution if it is agreed to by Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmound Abbas has said that he no longer wants the US involved in peace efforts following its decision which has eroded its credibility “as an honest mediator”.
“Trump with his announcement became part of the conflict and not an honest mediator in the Palestinian and Israeli peace process,” Bethlehem’s Mayor Anton Salman said.
Salman, a Roman Catholic who was elected six months ago, ironically leads a city which has a strong Muslim majority of at least 70 per cent, with only 30 per cent Christians.
It was once a Christian dominated city but emigration arising out of a wave of violence and economic hardships has seen its Christian residents move to several countries across the world.
“There is no way we can accept Trump’s declaration because it compromises our national principles, our national rights, our national future and everybody in Bethlehem and Palestine refuses and rejects this statement,” Salman said, adding that the “Palestinians are one people, and Jerusalem is sacred to Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike”.
Salman, however, played down the scope of the unrest in Bethlehem and other parts of the West Bank, insisting that “Bethlehem is not dangerous”.
Security was tight in the city as paramilitary Palestinian police armed with assault rifles patrolled the cobblestone streets.
Israel also eased security restrictions and made all possible efforts to make tourists feel safe.
Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the holy land, crossed through an Israeli military checkpoint to enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem.
The religious leader had last week tried to steer clear of politics rejecting US’ decision.
“Now it’s time to enjoy,” Pizzaballa said, adding “We as Christians will enjoy, despite all the difficulties we have. Merry Christmas”.
During the midnight mass the clergy prayed for the peace of Jerusalem and appealed to politicians “to have courage” to make bold decisions that respect all peoples.
“There is no peace if someone is excluded. Jerusalem should include, not exclude,” Pizzaballa said stressing “The Jerusalem is our mother, loves all her children. If one is missing, the mother cannot be in peace”.