Maryam Daoud runs a restaurant with her brother not far from the Basilica of the Nativity, and won’t hold back her anger as she points out the restaurants located between the “DCO” (checkpoint) of Beit Jalla and the Israeli checkpoint at the southern entrance of Jerusalem.
“In these restaurants, there are no controls, neither by the Palestinian National Authority nor by the Israelis,” she said. “They are full of customers who are flouting the lockdown measures, they do not respect distancing and other anti-COVID rules, but the owners are not afraid of sanctions. But us who are in Bethlehem, we have been forced to remain closed for days.”
The loud music and the laughter coming from the customers of the two establishments add to her frustration: “The PNA police have no authority here,” Maryam explains, “and as for the Israeli army, in these parts where only Palestinians live, they come to us only for reasons related to the military occupation, not to enforce the rules against the pandemic. In the meantime, I have to keep my place closed.”
In reality, there are very few such “lucky” Palestinians these days. Only here and in a few other particular situations are they able to escape the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus. Like Maryam and her brother, everyone in the Bethlehem district is suffering to some extent. Tourism, the driving force behind the city’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Hotels are mostly closed, as are restaurants and souvenir shops.
Updated unemployment figures are not available, but there is talk of at least 50% of the workforce that is being forced to stay at home. While on the other side of the “green line,” in Israel, hundreds of thousands of small entrepreneurs and self-employed people brought to ruin by the crisis are protesting against the government, the truth is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has public resources to invest to contain the economic crisis.
At the same time, in the West Bank, the PNA government’s coffers are empty, in part because of the clash with Israel regarding Palestinian funds coming from customs duties and other taxes (about $170 million per month)—and the first protests have begun. Taxi and bus drivers are complaining that they have not yet received the promised compensation—a few tens of euros in the local currency—while civil servants are receiving half of their salary, and not even every month. Economically, the West Bank has never been as close to impoverished Gaza as it has been in recent months.
The outlook is bleak. The pandemic has resurfaced with a vengeance in the Occupied Territories, just like in Israel. In March and April, there were less than 600 cases and five deaths in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. In the last month, the number of contagions has risen to almost 6,000, and the number of deaths to 40. These numbers are keeping Health Minister Mai al Keile on high alert, who fears the collapse of the hospitals.
In the spring, the PNA had been stricter than Israel in imposing measures to contain the pandemic, and by the end of the first wave, it loosened restrictions very slowly. But afterwards, to save the frail Palestinian economy, the PNA stood by when the population came to believe the pandemic was over. Starting first and foremost with the inhabitants of Hebron—the city with the most new positive cases—weddings were organized with hundreds of guests, restrictions were no longer respected during funerals, and few continued to wear a mask in the streets, restaurants, public places and at work.
In short order, the number of infections rose to hundreds per day. After the lockdown that has been reinstated for the past two weeks, the government of Mohammed Shtayyeh has banned all movement in the West Bank between cities and between 8 pm and 6 am for another 14 days.
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