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Christmas In Bethlehem: Trump Declaration Fuels Clashes In The West Bank


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ray Suarez. Michel Martin is away. It's Christmas Eve, and pilgrims and Palestinians are celebrating in the little town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Bethlehem is in the West Bank, and this year, Christmas comes with anger and anxiety. Palestinians have protested President Trump's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Bethlehem. Daniel, welcome.


SUAREZ: Well, Christmas Eve is an important day there naturally. What's it like right now in Bethlehem?

ESTRIN: Well, it's a carnival atmosphere. I'm in Manger Square - right next to the Church of the Nativity, which marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus - and it's lit up with Christmas lights. There's a tall Christmas tree. And what is on Palestinians' minds, not only Christmas but the political situation here - President Trump's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital. The Palestinians want the capital in Jerusalem as well, so people are very upset, people I've been speaking with. And you can see that here on Christmas. Manger Square has banners saying Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine. A banner says Vice President Pence is not welcome. The vice president was supposed to come here before Christmas but, because of Trump's announcement, he was told he wasn't welcome.

SUAREZ: Have there been fewer international visitors, pilgrims, tourists visiting Bethlehem this Christmas because of the protests?

ESTRIN: Yes. Earlier today, I visited the fanciest hotel in Bethlehem, it just won an international award. It happens to be right next to the Israeli separation barrier. And there have been clashes on the street in front of the hotel in recent weeks. And so the hotel has been closed for two weeks, and it just reopened yesterday. But it was supposed to be fully booked - two-thirds of their guests canceled.

SUAREZ: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is attending midnight services in Bethlehem tonight. What's his Christmas message?

ESTRIN: He is appealing to the world to reject the U.S. decision on Jerusalem. He says he will not accept any peace proposal by President Trump. And Trump has said his team is working on a proposal. The Trump administration says the Palestinians need a cooling-off period after the Jerusalem announcement, but there is still a lot of anger here. And I went to a multilingual Christmas prayer service today. And during the service, one of the Palestinian clergy tried to deliver an uplifting message with the story of the birth of Jesus. Here is Munib Yunan.

MUNIB YUNAN: A god of peace that incarnated in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem will again incarnate in this country. We will live as Palestinians this joy. Despite all what we hear in the world today, we are not afraid. We don't trust, except our Lord and savior, for he is a god of justice.

ESTRIN: He also said Jerusalem can never belong to one nation and one religion only. It belongs to three religions - to Jews, to Christians, to Muslims - to two nations - the Israelis and the Palestinians. He said the strength of Jerusalem is in its diversity.

SUAREZ: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Thanks so much for joining us.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.