A Covid Christmas in Palestine

A Covid Christmas in Palestine

Palestinians have been living under lockdown and curfew for decades. The coronavirus has only added to their troubles.

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At Christmastime in 2019 the Nativity Hotel in Bethlehem was a sight to behold. Christmas trees lined the lobby, their ornaments and white ribbons reflected in the white marble floor, while the hotel staff bustled past guests, carrying their luggage inside. Antique lamps, vases, and paintings depicting a majestic time in Middle Eastern history surrounded the grand living space, where more than a dozen blue and white velvet sectional couches blended modernity and Old World charm. Bright lights made the marble and ornaments sparkle. That, at least, is how Khalil Saliba Tareh remembers it.

Less than a year later, Tareh, the Nativity’s 37-year-old owner and manager, sat alone on those sectional couches, watching videos from that December in a vacant hotel. Little did he know then that in early March, Bethlehem—where 40 percent of all income is generated through tourism—would be the first place in the West Bank to succumb to the coronavirus. These days, he spends his time reminiscing about life before the pandemic.

“From 75 employees, I now have five working part-time,” he said. “We’re dependent on individuals who are coming to visit. That’s why I’m telling you it’s not going to get better for another two or three years.”

In some ways, Palestinians in the occupied territories have been conditioned for the curfews and travel restrictions that have attended the pandemic, considering the decades-long closures, curfews, Israeli-army-enforced blockades, land seizures, settlement expansions, and other abuses that govern their daily lives. But the virus has intensified these struggles, fracturing an economy that, in the West Bank, at least, had been steadily improving.

Health and economic conditions in the long-blockaded, densely populated Gaza Strip are immeasurably worse, with critical shortages of ventilators and other medical supplies as coronavirus infections skyrocket, leading World Health Organization officials to caution in November that it would take less than a week for Gaza’s facilities to be overwhelmed. Because Israel continues to exercise a nearly total blockade against Gaza, it’s hard to compare its responses to Covid-19 with those of the West Bank. Indeed, the latter’s GDP was growing before the pandemic because the Palestinian Authority (PA) was able to capitalize on the tourism industry, which is nonexistent in Gaza. In 2019 alone, 1.9 million visitors arrived to see Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, the site where Jesus is said to have been born. At the time, the city’s population was 30,000.

Tourism numbers then were strong. More than 3.5 million tourists visited the West Bank in 2019, an increase of 15 percent from the previous year, according to Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maayah. Despite its small size, Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank were ready for those big numbers, which were expected only to rise in the years to come. That was because the PA recognized the area’s potential for religious tourism, leading to successive growth and government investment.

Covid-19 changed all that. A report by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics released on September 27, World Tourism Day, shows fewer than 660,000 visits for the first half of 2020, of which nearly half came from Palestinians residing in the area.

The spread of Covid-19 has had a particularly powerful impact in the occupied territories, as nearly 60 percent of workers in the West Bank and Gaza are in the restaurant, hotel, commerce, or service industries. About 75,000 people in the territories still haven’t recovered the jobs they lost in the past year, pushing total unemployment to 19 percent in the West Bank.

In Gaza a distressed job market, which has long been denied the possibility of a tourism industry because of the blockade, has registered unemployment at 49 percent—a figure that has hardly changed in years and, as of 2017, was the world’s highest per capita. Nearly 60 percent of Gazans who do have a job work in the service industry.

“Since March, travel from Gaza to Israel through the Erez crossing has been something like 3 or 4 percent of what is considered normal,” said Miriam Marmur, the international media coordinator for Gisha, an Israeli human rights and research organization focused on the freedom of movement of Palestinians in Gaza. “The groups of people who have been impacted the most are the very few who previously would have met the criteria for traveling errands, which Israel defines as humanitarian exceptions, and those with trader permits.”

For Palestinians in Gaza, the Erez crossing—managed by the Israeli military—is the only entry into Israel and the occupied West Bank. It usually accounts for thousands of daily crossings for work, medical care, and other travel purposes. Through most of 2019, the monthly crossings out of Gaza averaged about 14,960, with over 10,000 people identifying as merchants, according to Gisha. But by October of 2020, only 612 Palestinians could exit. In September and October combined, only two Palestinians categorized as merchants were granted passage through the border crossing.

Bringing tourism and travel to a halt did have one benefit: It limited the spread of the coronavirus. Out of an estimated 5 million people living in the occupied territories, there have been 98,850 cases of Covid-19, with 822 deaths, as of December 1, according to the WHO. Of the 9 million people who live in Israel, 332,192 contracted the disease, and 2,831 have died from it.

Palestine was more prepared for the first coronavirus wave than many other governments because the PA’s security forces successfully lobbied the international community to provide them with a public health emergency simulation the previous year. “International donors gave them a workshop, and they modeled it on the basis of a potential MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] outbreak,” said Tahani Mustafa, a Jordanian-based research fellow at the London School of Economics.

The exercise proved beneficial, since the PA already suffered from limited logistical options and an obstructed health sector as a result of the Israeli military occupation, which has prevented the acquisition of supplies and equipment and greatly constrained the travel necessary to keep up-to-date with medical training and development, according to a report by al-Shabaka, an independent global Palestinian think tank.

Mustafa explained that the simulation was meant to include a workshop for representatives of the various branches of the security sector first, followed by a workshop for relevant political actors, such as representatives of the Health Ministry. The first workshop in 2019 addressed potential solutions to anticipated problems—which included a novel respiratory coronavirus.

Before the second workshop could take place, Covid-19 hit. With the first simulation fresh in memory, the PA moved fast, setting up a joint operations center where the Health Ministry, the prime minister’s office, and the security branches came up with procedures and rules and then delegated them to each governorate in the West Bank.

“With the first wave, what you had was an instantaneous response as soon as there was an outbreak in Bethlehem,” Mustafa said. “They basically shut down the area, and then a week or two later you ended up having the entire West Bank go into this severe lockdown. They did an OK job in the first couple of months. From what I was told, there was a lot of public consistency, where people were complying with the rules.” But unlike the simulation, the pandemic didn’t end.

Ten months have passed since those early days of relative success, and a different reality has emerged in the occupied territories. Makeshift checkpoints of dirt and stone now divide the towns. Travel and trade with Israel have been restricted even more than usual. And testing kits and supplies have run critically low. All 350 artificial respirators available in the territories had been put to use by July, according to the Health Ministry. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was pushing for annexation, a threat that preoccupied the Palestinian leadership. With the government overwhelmed, the PA saw no choice other than to look abroad for financial support. But it ran into a roadblock.

In the past, Palestinians relied heavily on US support, which amounted to around $400 million a year, according to a 2018 congressional report. But the bipartisan Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in 2018, slashed that funding to virtually nothing. According to that law, any foreign entity receiving US aid must consent to the jurisdiction of US courts regarding anti-terrorism claims, meaning the PA would be subject to terrorism-related lawsuits based on American law. Considering that it pays a stipend to the families of Palestinian citizens who are imprisoned in Israel, some of whom are being held on terrorism charges, the PA opted against accepting any US money. When the Palestinian economy shuttered after the first wave of the coronavirus, Washington pledged $5 million in aid—a paltry sum, roughly 1 percent of what had been the annual US aid budget to the PA.

According to data from the Palestinian Finance Ministry Service and an analysis by the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, since March, the PA has received no aid from Arab countries, some of which signed US-backed normalization agreements with Israel during that period. These cuts arrived on top of a 50 percent decrease in foreign aid from outside the region, with total funding dropping from $500 million in 2019 to $255 million in 2020.

“When we ask how Palestinians are able to live under these conditions, we have to understand that it’s never been much better,” said Yara Asi, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Central Florida who is researching health and development in fragile and conflict-ravaged populations. “For Palestinians who can afford it, they will continue to access higher-quality private facilities or, travel conditions permitting, travel to Jordan, Egypt, or other states for advanced [health] care they are unable to get in the territories,” she said. “Low-income Palestinians will continue to rely on the public health sector, buoyed by inconsistent aid to the Palestinian Authority, as US funding has essentially ended.”

While donors in other parts of the world have filled some of the funding shortfalls, Asi added, many Palestinians will now be unable to access health care altogether while resources run dry and medical facilities and providers remain overworked and understaffed. For example, “thousands of Palestinians are missing needed vision care, as they have not been able to access ophthalmologists for months,” she said. “One report estimated that 1,200 surgical procedures to help restore vision have been canceled since April.”

Some critics say the Palestinian government isn’t blameless. An analysis by al-Shabaka found that nearly $1 billion of the PA’s budget is allocated to the security sector—which has a long record of human rights violations—consuming more than the health, education, and agriculture sectors combined. In fact, the Palestinian Doctors Association, a West Bank labor union, began a strike last February to demand more government investment, noting an acute shortage of staff and equipment. That protest ended on March 6 to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

Some experts believe that as a result of conflicting priorities, a lack of funding and supplies, and the looming threat of annexation, the PA resorted to dealing with the pandemic by extending its strict shutdown measures, which began to frustrate Palestinians only more.

This has led some Palestinian rights activists to believe that the government’s failure to respond to the virus adequately has made it harder for the Palestinians to focus on their fight for self-determination.

“The Palestinian citizen did not receive any aid from the government, even though [the PA] received a large sum,” Anwar Abu Adas, an international law attorney based in Ramallah, said in an e-mail. “The government did not budget correctly, and the money was not spent as planned or agreed upon.”

At the same time, the lingering Israeli occupation may have left Palestinians at a psychological disadvantage from the outset of the pandemic.

“The occupation really manifests in hundreds of ways, large and small, from movement restrictions to administrative ones,” Asi said. “The outcomes of the occupation impact every part of life, from the food they can eat, the social life they can have, the pollution they are exposed to—all of which are determinants of health.”

Difficult circumstances, however, are not unique to those living in the occupied territories. On the other side of the Green Line in West Jerusalem, Johnny Asmar, a tour guide who identifies as an Israeli Arab, has started to come to terms with the new reality of life during the coronavirus.

“During the wars, the intifada, we used to sit at home for six or seven months, but this time is completely different,” said Asmar, who became a tour guide more than 20 years ago, following in his father’s footsteps. “We don’t know when we are coming back to work. Everyone is considering a new job.”

To prevent an exodus of workers in the country’s usually booming tourism sector, the Israeli government passed legislation to support tour guides during the pandemic. Now Asmar and others in his line of work are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, which had been unavailable to them. Asmar said he gets only 4,000 shekels a month (about $1,200), roughly 20 percent of his usual take-home pay. But he maintained that he’s lucky to get anything. “The situation with Palestinians and their government right now is not that good,” he said. “At least we get something, but they get nothing.”

Yet just outside the separation wall in East Jerusalem, Rasheed Nashashibi has found a way to keep his tourism-dependent business afloat. He owns the Golden Walls Hotel, which his grandfather built in 1964. It boasts 120 rooms and employs 60 people—none of whom have been laid off. By converting his hotel into a refuge for Palestinian workers who were stuck in Jerusalem after Israel closed its borders during the months-long shutdown, along with a loan and two grants he received from the Israeli government, Nashashibi has managed to keep his business solvent.

“We survived by filling the hotel with factory and construction workers,” he said on the phone. “We put most of our employees on leave, while the [Israeli] government pays them up to 75 percent of their salary. The hotel never closed.” Nashashibi said the loan he received was about 16 percent of the previous year’s income, which amounted to 1.5 million shekels, or $450,000.

But not everyone has been so lucky. For Malda Alami, the coronavirus has brought a separation from loved ones due to the extreme travel and containment rules. A 28-year-old Palestinian with Israeli citizenship living in Jerusalem, Alami married her husband, who resides in Ramallah in the West Bank, in 2020. But because of increased security and travel restrictions over the summer and much of the fall, she went three months without seeing him. “My husband holds a Palestinian ID, and he needs a permit to get into Jerusalem—and the Israeli government had suspended all permits from the West Bank for the lockdown,” she said. “It was already hard to travel through the checkpoints before, but the virus made everything a million times harder.”

What makes it more frustrating for Alami is that travel isn’t as complicated for everyone in the region. While Israel has been hit harder than the territories in terms of the death toll, Mustafa, the Jordan-based researcher, noted that Israeli citizens have been given an unofficial pass to travel through the West Bank. This makes recovery efforts more difficult for the Palestinians, she explained, since it allows “infected individuals to go into the West Bank and come out.”

Meanwhile, the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights found that Israeli military bulldozers entered 300 meters into the Gaza Strip in mid-October, resulting in the most damage to agricultural land and irrigation systems by an Israeli military incursion since 2014. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that Israeli forces carried out 45 similar incursions into Gaza in 2020 alone.

Considering the lack of resources, the dire state of the economy, the travel restrictions, and the continuing threat of annexation, it’s hard to tell what the future holds for Palestinians. While Covid-19 has been a terrible blow, Alami sees it in a broader context that includes decades of military invasion, occupation, expropriation, economic strangulation, and restrictions on freedom of movement. “Nobody in the world understands the severity of what’s happening here until you come see it in person,” she said. “Virus lockdown and curfew here and around the world are temporary. Palestine has been going through that for a good 70 years now. The coronavirus was the cherry on top.”

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