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In Bethlehem, a Mood of Hopeless Resignation Among Palestinians

Recently, the hotel was enjoying a respite as protesters had taken the day off. But residue of tear gas hung in the air outside, inducing itchy eyes and sneezing. Someone picked up a used stun grenade and placed it on a balustrade.

Most of the hotel’s staff members had been sent home, since there were no guests anyway. One group was scheduled to arrive over the weekend. If there were riots going on at check-in time, said Ahmad al-Manawee, the guest relations manager, Plan B was to bring the lodgers in through a side entrance.


Israeli forces in Bethlehem near the separation barrier with graffiti depicting President Trump. Credit Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Many Palestinians in Bethlehem described their own leadership as feckless and confrontation with the Israelis as futile.

“It’s been sold,” Muhammad Abu Sabaiyya, 41, said of Jerusalem as he sat idly in his empty car repair shop. “Those who are not going out into the streets know it was all already agreed to with our government.”

Mr. Abu Sabaiyya’s cynicism echoed a widespread sentiment as he stared out at the separation wall adorned with graffiti, including a recent addition: an image of Mr. Trump wearing a black skullcap.

Yet, despite the dire predictions of major turmoil, and the best efforts of both Fatah and Hamas to mobilize the masses, so far there has been no large-scale, spontaneous outburst of violence in the wake of the president’s declaration.

The response has been more of a part-time simulation of an uprising, almost by appointment. A few thousand protesters have turned out at familiar friction points in the West Bank or along the Gaza border on the designated “Days of Rage” called for by the political factions. Other days, hardly anybody has shown up.

“It’s not that people don’t want to stand up for their rights,” said Samar Salah, 25, a Muslim student from a nearby village who had come to Bethlehem with her friends to see the Christmas decorations. “But there are never any results.”

Many Palestinians now view the confrontations with Israeli soldiers as pointless since they consider the Jerusalem declaration unlikely to be reversed. Those lucky enough to have decent jobs do not want to jeopardize their livelihoods. Others struggling to make ends meet seem to have more immediate concerns than throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.


The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, venerated as the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Credit Thomas Coex/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ibrahim Skakiyeh, 28, a father of two from Ramallah, was out hawking red Santa hats and selfie sticks in Manger Square, near the Church of the Nativity, venerated as the traditional birthplace of Jesus. Last year was “gold,” he said. Now he was out of pocket, having paid his bus fare and not having sold a single item in six hours. A lone pilgrim group from Africa passed through, without buying.

“Trump’s announcement ruined everything,” Mr. Skakiyeh said, adding that he still had to purchase milk and diapers on his way home. “All on loan,” he added.

The deputy leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Aloul, recently declared the Oslo peace accords with Israel to be over and said that all forms of resistance were legitimate, leading Israeli officials to question if he was calling for a return to armed struggle.

But battle-fatigued Palestinians remarked that their leaders were not the ones out on the front lines and that their children were more likely to be studying abroad.

In a recent survey, 70 percent of Palestinians said that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority should resign. In a Christmas message on Friday, Mr. Abbas said that Mr. Trump’s decision had “encouraged the illegal disconnection between the holy cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem.”

Analysts have still not discounted the possibility of a larger flare-up. Since Mr. Trump’s declaration, at least 11 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including one who wore a fake bomb and slashed a soldier with a knife in Ramallah. During clashes along the Gaza border on Dec. 15, two Palestinians were killed, one of them, Ibrahim Abu Thuraya, a disabled man who was said to have lost his legs in an Israeli airstrike in 2008 and had since become a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Two more were killed in Gaza on Friday, and one on Saturday.

There were also fears on both sides that a trickle of rocket fire out of Gaza into southern Israel, and Israeli retaliatory strikes, could quickly escalate into a new war.


The lighting ceremony of a Christmas tree outside the Church of Nativity earlier this month. Credit Abed Al Hashlamoun/European Pressphoto Agency

But even in Gaza, the protesters were not all enthusiastic. “Now it’s the turn of the military groups to bomb an Israeli tank or jeep or post,” said Muhammad Abu Salah, 24, during a clash with Israeli soldiers at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip. “I only throw stones. I have no gun in my hand,” he said, while ducking the clouds of tear gas. “These protests are in vain.”

The Jacir Palace Hotel abuts the hardscrabble Aida refugee camp, where Amar Abu Akker, a Fatah activist, was sitting with friends outside his sister’s grocery store in the shadow of the separation wall. Israel started building it in 2002, at the height of the second intifada, with the stated goal of keeping Palestinian suicide bombers out of its cities.

On Dec. 12, Israeli border police officers had tried to drag Mr. Abu Akker’s son, Mustafa, 7, and two young friends, into a jeep in a harrowing scene that was captured on video. Mr. Abu Akker and several other adults intervened and retrieved the children.

The children had been playing in an enclosed area by the wall, Mr. Abu Akker said, adding that the officers picked them up because they could not find the stone-throwers they were looking for.

Mr. Abu Akker, 33, has served three terms in Israeli prison “for everything — opening fire, throwing stones, resisting the occupation,” he said. He was last released a year ago.

Fatah is now so divided, he said, that a meeting of about 100 activists in the camp the night before had almost ended in a brawl.

It was a waste to risk lives by confronting the Israeli forces, he said, since “not one intifada has made a difference.”

“The first brought us Oslo,” he said, referring to the uprising of the late 1980s and the interim peace accords of the 1990s that have still not resulted in final settlement. “The second brought this,” he said, gesturing toward the wall, punctuated by a black watchtower.

Source: NYT > World

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