Bethlehem Becomes a Ghost Town After Coronavirus Closure

Residents suspect the decision may be more political than a move to curb coronavirus spread

A man walks past closed shops as preventive measures are taken against the coronavirus, in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank March 6, 2020
MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS

The West Bank city of Bethlehem looked like a ghost town on Friday. The city has virtually died since seven people were diagnosed with coronavirus, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Ramallah. On Friday and Saturday, more people tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 19.

Residents have been critical of Israel and the Palestinian Authority taking stricter measures in the West Bank than inside Israel, with some suspicious of the motives behind Israel’s decision to close off the city.

Fadi Katan, a hotel owner and member of the city’s hotel association, told Haaretz that despite that fact that there are more cases in Israel than in the West Bank, "there nobody has thought of putting cities into lockdown. Those who are ill in Bethlehem caught it from people who came here via Israel, so the reason behind the entire decision is unclear.”

A few hours after the diagnoses were made in a town near Bethlehem, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett ordered both the IDF and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to impose a closure on the city until further notice, in a step he said was coordinated with the Palestinian Authority.

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The decision bars Palestinians from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour from entering Israel, although many of them work there. The movement of goods will proceed as normal.

On top of these restrictions, Israel has announced that it will impose a general closure on the West Bank and close crossings into the Gaza Strip over the Purim period. The closure, which occurs on a yearly basis over the holiday, will take effect as of Sunday.

According to the Israeli army, the closure will be imposed at midnight, while the crossings will close starting Sunday. Opening of the crossings and closure will be at midnight Wednesday through Thursday subject to assessment.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said on Friday that the seven people diagnosed with coronavirus had caught it from a group of tourists from Greece who stayed at a Beit Jala hotel who had also visited Israel. Fifty-one other people who were at the site tested negative for the illness. All of those tested, among them hotel employees, were placed under quarantine.

The ministry stressed on Saturday that no cases were confirmed outside of Bethlehem, and the 19 patients who tested positive have been transferred to a quarantine facility in Jericho.

Palestinian policeman delivers supplies to the hotel staff which tested positive to coronavirus to a hotel in Bethlehem, West Bank, Friday, March 6, 2020
Majdi Mohammed,AP

However, not only the Israeli authorities have taken such measures for fear of the virus spreading. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced a list of emergency measures including the closure of schools and educational institutes, from kindergartens to universities, until further notice.

Tourist sites, churches and mosques have also been closed, with tourists barred from entering the cities, and traffic has been restricted between cities and districts of the West Bank.

The last remaining tourists in Bethlehem have been evacuated by Saturday. Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said that over the weekend, it coordinated with Palestinian authorities the departure of dozens of tourist groups from the West Bank, following requests by the tourists and by their respective diplomatic missions in Israel.

Palestinian residents of Bethlehem and surrounding areas have reported a significant decline in activity in the city since Thursday evening, which is often visited by tourists from Israel and many other places across the globe.

“There’s a feeling of paralysis,” Katan said, adding that the closure is taking place during a period when tourism was growing. “Closing the city this month when we have organized a big event like the Bethlehem marathon, which has now been cancelled, is a very tough blow to everybody. I went around the city yesterday and there were still some tourists, but very few. The city is almost dead. Without tourism there’s nothing to do in Bethlehem.”

On Friday morning residents told Haaretz that checkpoints to and from Israel had been shut. One resident, who asked not to be identified, said it’s not clear how the decision will be implemented.

“There are foreign citizens and people who have Israeli citizenship. What will they do with them if they reach the checkpoints? The fear is that this is more of a decision by a defense minister who wants to prove his existence than a decision that will have a real impact on preventing the spread of corona.”

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza reported on Saturday no cases of the virus. However, authorities in the Hamas-controlled encalve set up a quarantine facility at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

Yaniv Kubovich contributed to this story.