American flags fluttered on Jerusalem streets this weekend. The YMCA Christmas tree, across the street from the King David Hotel, where Vice President Mike Pence had been expected to arrive, glittered in unusually warm, sunny weather. Children played on the lawn.
Not far away, violence raged Sunday in parts of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the militant group Hamas fired two rockets into Israel, all part of the angry reaction to President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there.
But in Jerusalem, peace has held.
The city’s Christmas tree went up Thursday at the Old City’s New Gate, as it does every year.
At the American Colony Hotel, an oasis of green leaves and sparkling bougainvillea flowers in the heavily Arab sector of East Jerusalem, uniformed staff lighted the third of four large candles in a pine wreath, signaling the third of four weeks leading to Christmas.
No one can tell any difference from what their lives looked like two weeks ago.... So what’s the big deal?
The concierge noted that all the journalists who booked rooms last week, in anticipation of violence in the streets, had left. One American network had reportedly booked rooms for 12 staff members, all of whom left after three days when anticipated clashes failed to materialize.
At the historic Damascus Gate, Arab citizens and some Israeli Jews did their Saturday shopping. There was a larger police presence than usual, with a police van and an antenna-laden border police vehicle clogging the central roundabout, but calm reigned.
“Have you come here looking for trouble?” one passerby shouted jokingly at a police officer in short sleeves. “As always!” the cop retorted.
The White House announced that Pence’s visit, originally scheduled to begin Sunday, was delayed by several days so he could be present if needed to break a tie on the Republican tax bill.
The calm in Jerusalem is all the more striking for the storm that has raged around it.
On Friday, three Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were killed by Israeli security forces in protests against Trump’s decision on Jerusalem. A fourth Palestinian was killed when he reportedly attacked Israeli soldiers.
Earlier, Palestinians protesters in the West Bank city of Hebron burned a figure of Trump in the form of a pig.
On Sunday, the Israeli military said thousands of Palestinians were rioting in the West Bank and Gaza, with protesters rolling burning tires and hurling rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers. Hamas launched two rockets from Gaza, one of which landed in the Israeli community of Netiv Haasara, where one person was killed by a Hamas rocket three years ago. No injuries were reported Sunday.
The lack of violence in Jerusalem is not an indication of ambivalence. Nearly everyone has an opinion about Trump’s decision, pro and con, and many are happy to share it.
Cabdriver Rami Narkisi, an Israeli Jew, bought pears and other fruit in the Old City. “I think Trump’s decision will be good in the future,” he said, allowing that it may cause “incidents” in the short term. But he believes it will make the future brighter for his three adult children, who he hopes will remain in Jerusalem. Many share this view — but hardly all.
At the bustling Al-Amin bakery, a crowd of mostly Arab men — but Israeli Jews and foreigners as well — vied for loaves of rye bread or bags of whole wheat or white pita bread.
A mention of Trump’s name provoked derision. “Shut up,” one man said. Another cracked a joke about a dairy delicacy being missing from the shelves “because the guy who makes it is angry at Trump.”
“Everybody is angry at Trump,” said Antonio di Gesu, a Sardinian-born Israeli Jew who is friends with the bakery’s owners — the Muslim Arab Aljoni family — and was helping out behind the counter on a busy weekend. “What Trump did, he did only for his evangelical Christian voters. He doesn’t care at all about anyone in Jerusalem.”
Many Jerusalemites, it appears, don’t care right back.
“No one can tell any difference from what their lives looked like two weeks ago,” before Trumps’ announcement, Palestinian affairs analyst Khaled abu Toameh said, explaining the relative nonchalance of Arab Jerusalemites. “Trump didn’t say anything about [Al Aqsa] mosque. He didn’t say ‘I recognize Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem’ or even recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, so what’s the big deal? The United States has been biased towards Israel for 50 years.”
Jerusalem, which is more than 5,000 years old, was divided into eastern and western sides for 19 years beginning in 1948, when the armistice lines of what Israelis call the war for Independence and Palestinians call the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” resulted in a split city. Israel gained control over East Jerusalem in 1967 after the Middle East War.
In announcing Pence’s upcoming Middle East tour last month, the White House said it would serve to “check on the status of Christians in the region.”
But local Christian communities, infuriated by Trump’s Jerusalem decision, appear to be joining Palestinians in shunning the vice president.
On Friday, the White House announced that Pence’s anticipated meeting with Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II, who leads the largest Christian denomination in the Middle East, was canceled. Pence will also skip his scheduled visit to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which is under Palestinian rule.
He is scheduled to meet only with representatives of Israel’s government when he arrives for a truncated visit this week. He also will meet with President Abdel Fattah Sisi in Egypt.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.