AP NEWS

Tensions, weather thin Christmas Eve crowds in Bethlehem

December 25, 2017 GMT

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - It was a subdued Christmas Eve in the historic birthplace of Jesus on Sunday, with spirits dampened by cold, rainy weather and recent violence sparked by President Donald Trump’s recognition of nearby Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Crowds were thinner than previous years as visitors, particularly Arab Christians living in Israel and the West Bank, appeared to be deterred by clashes that have broken out in recent weeks between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces. Although there was no violence Sunday, Palestinian officials scaled back the celebrations in protest.

Claire Degout, a tourist from France, said she would not allow Trump’s pronouncement, which has infuriated the Palestinians and drawn widespread international opposition, affect her decision to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land.

“The decision of one man cannot affect all the Holy Land,” she said. “Jerusalem belongs to everybody, you know, and it will be always like that, whatever Trump says.”

Trump abandoned decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and saying he would move the American Embassy to the holy city.

Trump said the move merely recognizes the fact that Jerusalem already serves as Israel’s capital and that he was not prejudging negotiations on the city’s final borders. But Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, saw the declaration as unfairly siding with Israel. Last week, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to reject Trump’s decision.

The announcement triggered weeks of unrest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including near-daily clashes in Bethlehem, which lies just south of Jerusalem.

By mid afternoon, hundreds of people had gathered in Manger Square for celebrations, greeted by young Palestinian marching bands and scout troops. Accompanying the decorations was a large banner protesting Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. After nightfall the crowds thinned as rain fell and temperatures dipped to the 40s. Just a few dozen people milled about Manger Square, while others took shelter in the church and other buildings.