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Politics Dampen Christmas Festivities In Bethlehem


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Arabic, English and German)


That is the sound of "Joy To The World" being sung in Arabic, English and German at a Christmas prayer service in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem this year have been clouded by anger at President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Palestinians also have claims in Jerusalem. Vice President Pence was supposed to visit Bethlehem before Christmas. But after that announcement from Trump, Palestinian officials said he was no longer welcome.

NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Bethlehem this morning. Good morning, Daniel.


GREENE: So remind us. These big celebrations, they're usually right downtown next to that church that marks the spot where tradition says Jesus was born, right? What - how does it feel different this year?

ESTRIN: Two things put a damper on Christmas this year, the weather and politics. The weather because it got really cold and it started pouring rain, and tourists and Palestinians and the cotton candy vendors all ran to seek cover. But there were also fewer visitors for Christmas this year. They were scared away. There were clashes in Bethlehem between Palestinian youth and Israeli troops in the last few weeks right outside Bethlehem's fanciest hotel. The hotel says two-thirds of its guests canceled their bookings for Christmas Eve. And the city scaled down its celebrations because of Trump's decision.

GREENE: Well, I mean, Bethlehem becomes a focal point on Christmas each year. And I know the Palestinian leadership often tries to get their message out. This seems like a time that they certainly want to get their message out, right?

ESTRIN: And they are. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas released a Christmas message. And he said he was rejecting the peace proposal that President Trump has not yet proposed, but that has - but he has promised to propose. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that that's proof that, quote, "it is the Palestinians who do not want to resolve this conflict." Now, the Trump administration has been quiet about Abbas's latest announcement that he was going to reject a future peace proposal. The administration has said the Palestinians need a cooling-off period.

The Trump administration seems to believe the Palestinians will be back to working with the U.S. on peace in just a few weeks or moments. So we're going to have to see if Palestinian officials indeed do meet with Vice President Pence, who is scheduled to come here next month.

You know, David, this is really a time of enormous uncertainty for Palestinians. First of all, if President Abbas really is rejecting the U.S. as a peace mediator, what's plan B? And there have been almost daily clashes with Israeli troops with some Palestinians killed and many wounded. So where is that headed? I met one Palestinian woman, Najwa Raheb, at a Christmas Eve prayer service in Bethlehem last night. She was really apprehensive.

NAJWA RAHEB: I hope that peace will take place and we will not have another - problems in the area, another uprising.

ESTRIN: And by uprising, she means a Palestinian intifada, an intense period of violence.

GREENE: That does give you a sense of the anxiety some people are feeling right now. Daniel, just let me ask you about one decision. I know a lot of countries were angry at President Trump for making his decision about moving the embassy. But we have Guatemala now saying they're going to move their embassy to Jerusalem. So, I mean, are we going to see more countries making this decision now that the U.S. has opened the door?

ESTRIN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says we will. He says Israel has been speaking to several countries about following Trump's lead to move their embassies to Jerusalem. And sure enough, as you said, the president of Guatemala spoke to Netanyahu yesterday. He said he decided to move Guatemala's embassy, too. Israel has supplied Guatemala with security expertise, with arms for many years. Guatemala has supported Israel at the U.N.

But I would not expect many more countries to follow Trump's lead on this. Most countries voted at the U.N. last week to reject Trump's recognition of Jerusalem. Their position is that Israelis and Palestinians both have claims in Jerusalem and countries shouldn't take sides until the matter is resolved in peace talks.

GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting for us this morning from Bethlehem. Daniel, thanks.

ESTRIN: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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