Palestinian activists shut down a meeting in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Tuesday between a delegation from the U.S. Consulate and Palestinian city officials, marking an escalation in the widening rift between Palestinians and the U.S. after Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December.
After activists interrupted the meeting with banners comparing Trump to Nazis and ISIS, and shouting “you are not welcome anymore!” the American officials abruptly walked out of a conference room at the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Then activists pelted their departing convoy with tomatoes, and some demonstrators kicked the vehicles.
Mohammad Lutfi, a Palestinian activist who lives in Aida refugee camp outside of Bethlehem, was arrested hour later on Tuesday Palestinian Authority security forces. At least four others protesters were summoned for interrogation, of whom three are identified as Anas Abu Srour, Ahmad Odeh, and Ibrahim Msallam.
Shortly after the detention of Lutfi, dozens of Palestinians from the Aida refugee camp and the surrounding areas took to the PA headquarters in Bethlehem to demand his release. PA forces then released Lutfi after he, along with the four others, were made to sign documents saying they would appear for interrogation, if asked to, on Wednesday.
Earlier on Tuesday, Lutfi and a group of local activists were filmed as they interrupted the meeting between Palestinian officials and businessmen, the Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem.
The activists pushed through security, chanting slogans like “America get out” and “America is the head of the snake.”
As the American delegation was leaving the room, the chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry Samir Hazboun, apologized to the officials. In response, activist Anas Abu Srour can be seen in the video saying “We are not sorry! You should be sorry!”
In a statement given to the Palestine News Network (PNN) at the demonstration, Odeh said that he and the other activists expelled the delegation in light of calls for a nationwide boycott, in which Palestinian national factions have said that the neither government nor private agencies should receive American officials in the occupied territory.
After Palestinian officials refused to host Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to the region earlier this month, President Trump withheld funding to Palestinian refugees because of their “disrespect” to Pence, he said in Davos at the World Economic Forum.
Amid ongoing threats from Trump, who has said that he will continue to withhold millions of dollars in funding to critical agencies like UNRWA–the UN agency tasked with providing relief to more than five million Palestinian refugees–anti-Trump protests have gained new momentum across the Palestinian territory.
During Tuesday’s demonstration, activists demanded the dismissal of Hazboun, saying that by holding the meeting, he disrespected the Palestinian national consensus to boycott American officials.
The activists also vowed that they would not accept any Palestinian officials dealing with any representatives of the American government, and will continue to hold demonstrations.
Hazboun released a statement on Wednesday on behalf of the office of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce and Industry denying that the delegation was from the State Department, and that the meeting was a digital marketing training with an American business developer with a media agency.
The statement, posted to social media by Odeh, accused the activists of “destroying the facility” and assaulting an employee. In the video, glasses can be heard breaking as the activists were pushed around by security, and a minor physical altercation can be seen breaking out between Odeh and an employee, who can be visibly seen prompting the altercation.
In the same post to Facebook Odeh accused Hazboun and the office of lying to and “misleading” the Palestinian people.
Countering Hazboun’s claim that the delegation was not American officials, the State Department confirmed the incident in their own statement. “Though no one was hurt, the objective was clearly intimidation. The United States absolutely opposes the use of violence and intimidation to express political views,” said the statement.
Anas Abu Srour told Mondoweiss that the arrest of Lutfi and interrogation summons of the other activists were prompted by an unknown complainant who accused the activists of assaulting the delegation. But upon review of the video and pressure from locals, the activists were let go.
Abu Srour said the demonstration was spontaneous, and that the activists took to the office upon hearing of the meeting.
He clarified that Palestinians are not boycotting American citizens, but rather any American officials or delegations associated with the Trump administration.
“This was a message for the American administration that they are not welcome here anymore in the Palestinian territories until Trump withdraws his declaration on Jerusalem and his continued threats against UNRWA,” he said.