This is the fourth episode in a five-part series produced by Mondoweiss on COVID-19 in Palestine. The series explores how the virus is affecting the social, economic, and political situation in the occupied territory, where Palestinians are living under both a global pandemic, and the Israeli occupation. You can view the entire series here – mondoweiss.net/covid19series.
If you were to walk right now into the Church of Nativity in the city of Bethlehem, you would find it completely empty: a rare sight for one of the most religiously significant and historical places in the world.
So why is the birthplace of Jesus completely empty? In short, the answer is COVID-19.
Like the rest of the world, Palestine has been hit hard with the coronavirus pandemic, and is still struggling to flatten the curve.
But the city of Bethlehem in particular has perhaps been impacted the most by the pandemic.
At any given time of year, the streets of Bethlehem’s Old City would be filled with tourists from all over the world, visiting religious sites, and buying tokens of the holy land to take home with them.
But now, shops have been closed and the streets are empty, and people in Bethlehem have been wondering, if life here will ever return back to normal.
“If we want to describe Bethlehem during this time, you can see Manger Square is like the Square of Ghosts,” Nabil Giacaman, the owner of a local souvenir shop in Manger Square, told Mondoweiss.
“It’s not just Manger Square, it is all of Bethlehem. Even in the refugee camps, in the streets, there used to be tourists walking around, and staying the night in Bethlehem. Now all of these things are gone,” he said.
“When you talk about Bethlehem you are talking about 90% in the tourism industry. Ninety percent of [Bethlehem] has been destroyed.”
Before the first coronavirus lockdown in March shop owners like Giacaman had stocked up on their inventory in order to get ready for the peak tourist season in Bethlehem, which happens between March and April, around Easter holidays.
But this year, their souvenirs never got sold. Since then they’ve been sitting on the shelves collecting dust
“We didn’t think it would last this long. I was thinking maybe one or two months, that’s it and done,” Giacaman said of the pandemic.
“But now you can see, we are in the sixth month, and Bethlehem is still closed, and we still don’t know. Every once in a while they say oh ‘maybe next month’, but nothing happens,” he continued.
“My life, financially and psychologically, has changed completely. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve been set back 20 years. And the same for my family who work in this industry. And we don’t know when we will come back from this.”
Estimates indicate that Bethlehem attracts anywhere between one to three million tourists each year, with a spike in recent years of political and solidarity tours, on top of religious pilgrimages.
According to local experts, short-term losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic reached up to 500 million dollars in the city of Bethlehem alone.
“Before the coronavirus, there was a 21% unemployment rate. Unemployment has increased because we stopped working, so now the unemployment has doubled, to 40-42% percent,” Sameer Hazoubn, a Palestinian economist told Mondoweiss.
“The number of residents that don’t have work has become really large because of the coronavirus. And it’s not just right now that people don’t have work, they are going to be without work for a long time, in my opinion, because we don’t know when the coronavirus will end.”
On top of fighting a second wave of the coronavirus, that has resulted in close to 50,000 cases of the virus in the occupied Palestinian territory, the Palestinian Authority has been caught in its own financial and political crisis and has offered little to nothing to Palestinians in the West Bank in terms of financial and humanitarian relief.
“We do not have a social security system or unemployment benefits, it’s not available [in Palestine]. The government tried to start a program to distribute relief packages to the people. But these packages gave some of the unemployed people 700 shekels, That’s around $200,” Hazboun said.
“Someone cannot live on $200; it’s not enough for rent, electricity, or water. So this is a big problem,” he continued. “I am not a pessimist, but this is the reality.”
“The reality is that the people lost their income, lost their job, and lost their money. How can we live? If the [coronavirus] continues until the end of this year with this strong wave of the corona, and we are unable offer more resources, I believe there will be a disastrous affect on the Palestinian community.”
In just a few months, the city of Bethlehem will adorn its streets and holy places with bright lights and festive decorations for the Christmas Holidays — a time when the city would typically be flooded from tourists from around the world.
This year, however, things are expected to be a little different.
“We hope when the borders open back up, we are waiting for you all in Bethlehem city, the city of peace really misses everyone,” Giacaman said.
“People used to fill all of our streets, not just financially and economically, it was nice to see people visiting us. Put the economy on the side, the liveliness of Bethlehem, we need it,” he continued.
“A big part of the life in Bethlehem has been shut off. Like blowing out a candle, Bethlehem’s light was shut off.”