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.