Just a month ago, the owner of a museum in Bethlehem, Rula Dughman, was preparing for his busiest time of the year: Christmas.
“In November everyone was busy cleaning, preparing for the rebirth of Bethlehem Christmas. Then came Omicron, ”sighed, looking out over the deserted Manger Street, near where the tradition says that Jesus Christ was born.
Shortly after the introduction of the new coronavirus, Israel, which controls the West Bank border in Bethlehem, blocked foreign traffic to spread the word.
In Israel, the growing financial burden of consecutive closures on tourism has been reduced by the billions of dollars the government spends on unemployment and direct assistance to hotels and tourists.
But the impoverished Palestinian Authority, with limited jurisdiction, did not receive the slightest hint of support from hotel and business owners in Bethlehem.
Without visitors, Bethlehem’s fortunes plummeted, and in its second Christmas under the plague, marching bands from local schools did little to raise the ire of Christmas. “We’re talking about a lot of financial institutions that have experienced huge failures,” said Anton Salman, the mayor of Bethlehem.
In the town of Bethlehem, where foreign visitors first introduced the virus in March 2020, there were more than 500 cases of coronavirus at Christmas, about 20,000 since the plague. Its population is about 100,000. About 250 residents have died of Covid-19, according to health officials.
Older people remember the past Christmas under the first and second intifadas, or riots, in the 1980s and early 2000s as it was more tragic than this. At that time, they said, the nearby Byzantine Church of Nativity was open.
“We have no oil here – what we have is with the church, and if the church is open, we make money,” said Adnan Sobh, 51, a souvenir salesman who was about to rent a shop in Manger. Square. “I have sold my sheep, my goats, and sold my car for a living.”
Unlike other cities within the West Bank, half of the staff at Bethlehem is connected to Christian tourism, says Salman, as they watch the festivities take place in his office on Manger Square. Radio cameras took a deep breath so as not to appear in the empty space, as marching groups greeted the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, a Catholic cleric on a cold Christmas night.
Salman listed 67 hotels, 125 souvenir shops and many olive groves that were left unoccupied, affecting thousands of people. “People cannot repay their debts to the bank – not even us [the municipality] is facing financial difficulties, ”said Salman.
The Bethlehem Municipality is $ 10m red, he says, with revenue from tourism that accounts for about half of Bethlehem’s total revenue. The Palestinian Authority deficit rose to $ 1.36bn in 2021, the World Bank said, with almost three families in the West Bank living in poverty.
Eight out of 10 workers in Bethlehem are unemployed, according to one city official. The total domestic revenue of the occupied Palestinian territories is less than $ 15bn, international agencies estimate, while the West Bank is the largest producer.
Amani Juha spent $ 1.5m renovating an old house into a modern 56-room hotel in Bethlehem. It reopened in November, hoping to compensate for the 25 workers who lost their jobs. “I have to look at a new window, which is not related to tourism. We saved a lot of 2022, but there was Omicron,” he said.
Mr Dughman pointed to closed shops, hotels with power outages and small groups from Israel visiting areas that often attract thousands of tourists.
At his cafe, he said his business was saved by Palestinian Israelis, some of them Christians, coming to Bethlehem on vacation after finding it difficult to fly out during the epidemic.
But keeping his museum and restaurants open during a time of extreme poverty made him feel guilty. “It was painful to open an art exhibition where people here are facing a big problem – they have no money, and I tell them to come and enjoy the art,” he said.
At the entrance to the sixth-century church, Father Antonius Habib waited for the parishioners to lead the bishops in prayer, and advised patience – both for the plague and for the Lord. Christians in Bethlehem should find comfort in reclaiming the city as their own personal feast, rather than sharing it with tens of thousands of foreign visitors, he said.
And for all the Christians in the world, the message remains the same. “Even though we may suffer so much, we must remember that Jehovah came to our rescue,” he said. He then changed his mask, and entered the reception line away from the Patriarchs.