Palestinian security personnel in protective gear are shown on March 15 delivering food to the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem. Most of the West Bank’s COVID-19 patients are quarantined there. (Xinhua/xiongsihao via Getty Images)

PA Shuts Down Bethlehem Area amid Fears of Economic Catastrophe

Closure of Palestinian territories’ top attraction is massive setback to tourism-dependent businesses

The cash-strapped Palestinian Authority is facing yet another crisis. This time, it is the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which is dealing a huge blow to the struggling economy.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency on March 5. It is to last for 30 days and enable the introduction of precautionary measures.

The measures have brought life to a standstill in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and nearby towns. Most of the 49 people confirmed as having COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories as of Thursday are in isolation at a hotel just outside Bethlehem.

The streets of the usually bustling city are deserted. The famous Manger Square stands eerily quiet, and the Church of the Nativity, Palestine’s biggest tourist attraction, built on the site many believe to be the birthplace of Jesus, shuttered its doors two weeks ago.

Hotels in Bethlehem are closed and thousands of reservations have been canceled. Last year, about 3.5 million tourists and pilgrims visited the city, bringing in desperately needed cash.

The situation is “catastrophic,” says Issa, who owns one of the hotels and asked that his last name not be used.

“There is no tourism. All the hotels are closed. We only think about today and cannot think about tomorrow and the future,” he told The Media Line.

There are 210 hotels in the Palestinian territories, according to the PA Tourism Ministry. Bethlehem has 78, with 5,210 rooms.

Mohamed Fouad, owner of Abu Rami Grill, closed his restaurant following the emergency declaration. He told The Media Line that his eatery provided a livelihood for himself and five employees, but they are all out of work.

“Coronavirus has paralyzed life in the city. Trade and business activity are almost nonexistent…. All stores, restaurants and cafés, big and small – closed. It’s bad,” he lamented.

“The greatest responsibility lies with the government,” Fouad added. “The government must declare a state of emergency at all levels. Not only at the level of health, but commercially and economically. And it must help the needy and poor families, and lend a hand to this afflicted city.”

Bethlehem draws tourists from around the world. But just weeks before Easter, several workers at the Angel Hotel in nearby Beit Jala tested positive, and the PA imposed a closure on the entire area, preventing people from entering or leaving. The hotel is where most of the West Bank’s COVID-19 cases are in quarantine.

George Hanna, a souvenir-shop owner in Bethlehem, applauded the PA’s decision. Yet more should be done.

“The government has taken some steps, but they are not up to the required level,” he told The Media Line. “The tourism minister should have stopped all tourist groups from coming when this crisis began [abroad]. The government and the tourism minister should have taken preventive measures.”

The order to shutter restaurants, cafés and wedding halls has deeply hurt the economy, and owners say they do not know how long they can hang on.

Thabit Abo Al Ros, a financial expert at Palestine Technical University in Tulkarem, in the northwestern West Bank, told The Media Line he feared the shutdown would have major repercussions.

“The Palestinian economy has yet to recover from previous financial crises,” he said.

“The government officially stated that there had been a decline in public-sector revenues of between NIS 300-400 million,” he stated. “Then there are the losses of the private sector in Palestine. The private sector constitutes at least 93% of the total economy, and as the prime minister stated, the losses in the private sector are many times greater than in the public sector.”

Al Ros said the loss of income, coming at the start of the tourist season, will be felt for months, if not years.

“The tourism sector has been healthy for a couple of years and has injected millions of dollars into the Palestinian economy,” he said. “Many people borrowed money from banks to build new hotels, remodel older ones and start businesses that rely on tourism. All that has come to a halt.”

But not all is doom and gloom.

“The Palestinian economy is small, meaning it will not have a major crash,” he said. “It depends on international sources for support, and therefore there will be international support for the Palestinian Authority, which will limit as much as possible the losses from this period.”

In Ramallah, north of Jerusalem, the vibrant Tira neighborhood, where many trendy cafés and restaurants are located, is empty.

Jack Saadeh, owner of Jasmin, a popular hookah café, told The Media Line that the tourism sector supported the government’s moves to contain the epidemic despite worries about financial losses.

“It’s going to affect a lot of areas,” he said.

“I have about 50 to 60 employees in total between here and Nablus [where another branch is located],” he continued. “I decided to give them their vacation pay, which is for 14 days under Palestinian law, and after that I’m going to take it day by day, play it by ear and see what the situation is.”

Saadeh also owns a pizzeria and a restaurant-supply company, and said he would be able to weather the storm – at least for a while.

“I might be able to survive for a month from today, but not more than that. In other places, they might not be able to survive for a week,” he said.

Saadeh added that for every month his business is closed, it will take him months to recover.

“If I close for a whole month, it will take me six to get back,” he estimated.

“We are talking about hundreds of thousands of shekels. It’s going to be chaos. Even if we open tomorrow, we need some recovery time to get back on our feet and be strong enough to continue the work of the food-service business,” he said.

“Let’s hope for the best,” he concluded, “and pray to God.”

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