Bethlehem, occupied West Bank — Shops were forced to close and roads were barricaded throughout the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday, hours before U.S. President Donald Trump made his first ever visit to the West Bank.
On the main road of the city, which used to link Bethlehem to Jerusalem before the creation of Israel’s separation wall, security was at the highest level. Cars were forbidden access to the main roads in the city, which were lined for miles with Palestinian special forces units.
At least 2,000 Palestinian special forces members were deployed throughout the city, the majority of which were stationed on the two-mile stretch of road traversed by Trump’s envoy from the Bethlehem-Jerusalem checkpoint to the Palestinian Authority’s security compound, which houses one of Abbas’s presidential palaces.
Trump and Abbas held a press conference at the palace, where both affirmed their dedication to a renewal of the peace process.
“I truly believe if Israel and the Palestinians can make peace, it will begin a process for peace in the Middle East,” Trump said during the conference. “Abbas assures me he is ready to work toward that goal in good faith, and Netanyahu has promised the same. I look forward to working with these leaders toward a lasting peace.”
While the PA did its best to impress the the U.S. president, repainting roads, cleaning up the streets and hanging U.S. flags all along Trump’s scheduled path, the opinions of Palestinian activists ranged from critical to enraged at the U.S. President’s visit and the possibility of renewed peace talks under U.S. leadership.
Tuesday marked the 37th day of a hunger strike launched by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails last month, which has become the central focus of activism among Palestinians. The leadership of the strike called for a “Day of Rage” to take place on Tuesday in solidarity with the strike and in protest of Trump’s visit.
At the Nativity church in Bethlehem, where Jesus Christ is said to have been born, dozens of Palestinians gathered for a rally in response to the call, where they created an effigy symbolizing a Palestinian prisoner wearing an Israel Prison Service uniform standing inside a metal cage, hoping to send a strong message to Trump about the hunger strike.
Activists expected Trump to visit the church, since former U.S. presidents have traditionally visited the site during trips to Bethlehem.
However around 10:30 a.m., right after Trump reached Abbas’s palace, security at the church became laxed, and it was apparent Trump would not be making an appearance.
Instead, Trump spent around 45 minutes at Abbas’s presidential compound, before taking the two-mile stretch of the same road out of Bethlehem, through an Israeli military checkpoint and back to Jerusalem.
Around a dozen women spent the night outside the Nativity church on Monday evening awaiting Trump’s rumored visit to the site on Tuesday. The mothers, all parents of Palestinians currently on hunger strike in Israeli prisons, slept outside under a solidarity tent that was set up last month because they were concerned the tent might be taken down in an attempt to depoliticize the rumored visit to the church.
While the mothers were disappointed Trump would not be visiting the Nativity, and in turn would not be exposed to the plethora of signs and posters featuring facts and slogans about the hunger strike, they were hopeful that their message was transmitted to the international community through the dozens of cameras broadcast journalists had set up in square, also waiting for Trump’s anticipated visit to the church.
Sajida Allan, a volunteer with the solidarity tent, meandered around the gathering, stopping to speak to tourists about their cause.
“These women have come to sit here everyday for 37 days,” Allan explained. “They’re here to support their sons, who have been on hunger strike for those entire 37 days. This is their way to show solidarity with their sons, and their way to explain to the world that their sons are just requesting fair rights — human rights.”
Maha Zaoul, the mother of 19-year-old Muntasir Zaoul, told Mondoweiss that she hoped their presence would send a message to the world during Trump’s visit.
“We’re here because we need the international community’s support, because our sons are stuck in prison on this strike that is killing them, my son weighed 110 pounds when he was arrested, now since the strike began he has lost 27 pounds, he is 83 pounds now, he is wasting away,” she said.
Maha’s son was arrested by Israeli forces when he was 16 years old for allegedly throwing stones during clashes, his mother explained.
“What our sons are asking for are simple things, humanitarian demands that all prisoners around the world deserve. The Palestinian government came late to the cause,” she said, possibly referring to the fact that Abbas did not mention the strike, which was on its 17th day, during his most recent visit to Washington D.C. to meet Trump. “But now we think they are with us. At the same time, the Palestinian government has no authority, in the end the decision over our son’s lives are in the hands of the Americans and the Israelis.”
Meanwhile, other activists condemned the idea of looking to the United States for help.
“We came to tell you that the one who decides the fate of Palestinian people are the Palestinian refugee camps and not the Americans,” one speaker announced at the rally, according to a Ma’an News translation. “The fate of Jerusalem can’t be decided by Trump, because Jerusalem is Arab, Jerusalem is Palestinian, and we decide its fate, not the Americans. The only ones who have supported the Palestinian people are our heroic prisoners, they are strugglers, fighting with only their bodies.”
On Monday, a mother of one of the hunger striking prisoners presented Abbas with a letter signed by herself and other mothers, requesting Abbas present the letter to Trump.
“We believe you have the ability and the necessary influence over the occupying Power’s government to end the suffering of our children in Israeli prisons,” part of the letter read. “You have stated you wanted to achieve peace and peace starts with ending the Israeli war against our children, our homes, our land, our existence and our rights. The Israeli refusal to respect the most basic rights of our prisoners and its inhumane measures against them and against us, and its threats against their lives are the best indicators of its intentions. We call upon you to urgently intervene to save the lives of our prisoners from the risk of imminent death and to help achieve their just demands.”
It was unclear on Tuesday afternoon whether Abbas had presented the letter.
Anti-Trump rallies were also held across the occupied West Bank, and in Gaza on Tuesday. Ongoing protests against Trump have erupted in the Gaza Strip since Trump lumped Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, as terrorists in the same category as ISIS and Hezbollah while visiting Saudi Arabia during his first speech delivered abroad.