The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem will be closed for two weeks, together with the other churches and mosques in the city. It will be the same for schools, universities, associations, conference and wedding venues. Even more serious is the fact that starting on Friday, there will be a ban on the entrance of foreign tourists, the lifeblood of the city’s economy.
The experts had predicted that after Israel, the coronavirus would also reach the occupied Palestinian territories. The first people infected from the latter are from Beit Jallah, at the gates of Bethlehem. The PNA Minister of Health, Mai al Kaila, reported on Thursday that seven employees of the Angel Hotel had tested positive for the virus at the Israeli Sheba hospital, and are now in quarantine along with their coworkers and two doctors.
The infection was transmitted by some of the 21 Greek tourists who were guests at the hotel and who fell ill on their return home. They may have spread the virus to other centers as well, because they travelled all over Israel and the West Bank during their holiday. As a result, there is high alert in Israel as well, where 17 cases of contagion have been detected so far—eight of them linked to touristic trips to Italy—and tens of thousands of people have been placed in quarantine.
When the news of the contagion at the Angel Hotel began to spread, Bethlehem, Beit Jala and nearby Beit Sahour were stricken with fear: the streets became nearly deserted, shops and restaurants almost empty, local buses with few passengers. In the central Manger Square in Bethlehem, only street vendors and groups of tourists who arrived in recent days can be found.
“All the hotels are full of tourists, and mine is as well, but from tomorrow it will no longer be possible to accept bookings from abroad,” said Doha Bandak, manager of the Gran Hotel in Bethlehem. “For the hotel operators, it will be a serious loss, coming precisely in the phase of maximum expansion of tourism in Bethlehem.”
Moreover, the coronavirus emergency and the ban on arrivals from many European countries (including Italy) and Asian countries decided by the Netanyahu government arrived as both the touristic and religious establishments were preparing for Easter.
However, an even bigger concern than the economy at this time is the Palestinian health system under occupation, which does not seem equipped to deal with this type of emergency. The PNA’s Ministry of Health has issued detailed instructions to the population regarding hygiene measures and social behavior to prevent new outbreaks of contagion in Bethlehem and other cities. However, no extra health facilities have yet been set up for the coronavirus.
People are very fearful for Gaza, where more than two million Palestinians live as prisoners in an area of less than 400 square kilometers. The hospitals, with their resources exhausted by more than 12 years of Israeli blockade and the aftermath of the longstanding PNA-Hamas conflict, are unable to cope with a possible extensive spread of the coronavirus in Gaza. There is a lack of adequate facilities, and the local population mounted a serious protest a few days ago against the evacuation of a hospital that will become a quarantine area for some suspected cases, involving Palestinians who returned to Gaza in February from countries in the Far East.