Bethlehem and COVID-19

by Paul Parker

“Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” is no longer just a Christmas carol. It is now the daily experience of all Bethlehemites. An eerie stillness has descended on Bethlehem and the surrounding towns. Virtually every public and private gathering place has been closed on the orders of the Palestinian Authority (PA). All schools, universities, banks, stores, hotels, restaurants, mosques and churches have been shuttered—even the Church of the Nativity. Only a few pharmacies and grocery stores are open. With very few exceptions, Israel has closed the checkpoints for all West Bank residents who have entry permits to Israel for purposes such as employment or essential services. All public transportation and all private cars are blocked from traveling between Palestinian towns. Even for Bethlehem and Beit Jala, which are adjacent, driving across the street from one to the other is impossible.

The silent streets of Bethlehem. (MCC Photo/Paul Parker)

Coronavirus was first discovered in the West Bank when seven employees of Beit Jala’s Angel Hotel were found to be infected on March 5, 2020—and suddenly, Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation became more difficult. Israel’s Minister of Defense ordered a quarantine of Bethlehem, and the PA moved decisively to contain the virus by declaring a state of emergency for the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no curfew, but it feels like one.

To learn more about how Bethlehemites are coping with the coronavirus, Israel’s closure and the PA’s state of emergency, I (Paul) walked the silent streets of Bethlehem to meet with Mr. Zoughbi AlZoughbi, Director of Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, an MCC partner. We met in his home where he greeted me with his typically warm “Ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome in Arabic) and sporting a new beard which he started to grow when the quarantine was announced and will not be shaved, he says, until the coronavirus has been vanquished. The following is a distillation of Zoughbi’s comments in his voice:

Fewer than fifty Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus, praise God. [This was accurate when interviewed, but as of April 7, there were 261 known cases in Palestine—218 are active, 44 recovered, 1 death. For daily Palestinian updates, see] Some of our people who have been infected or exposed to the virus and are in home quarantine are open about their situation. They are good role models, and I am proud of these people. Others feel ashamed as if they have done something wrong to catch the virus, and they hide themselves and the truth about their illness. Still others are fatalistic and reasoning, “God will protect me, but if I catch the virus, it is God’s will.” I worry about these last two groups of people. They do not love others or themselves enough.  

Two of my adult children are working as schoolteachers while they finish their master’s degrees at Bethlehem University. Since the closure of everything, classes at the University have moved online, but teaching online in secondary schools is more difficult. Not all secondary school teachers have been trained for online teaching. And some families do not have the internet or even a home computer. So, many teachers are using WhatsApp to teach their students and visiting them in their home. This life is hard, but Palestinians will sacrifice almost anything for a good education.

Street scene in the Bethlehem area of West Bank, Palestine, showing the entrance to Aida refugee camp. MCC supports partner Lajee Centre’s after-school enrichment opportunities and summer camps for children at Aida refugee camp. (MCC photo/Lynn Longenecker, 2018)

The economic picture is not good. Although we understand that the PA’s order to close businesses is necessary to protect us, it’s unfortunate because when people don’t work, they don’t get paid. Israel’s occupation has already caused high unemployment and a low standard of living in the West Bank and Gaza, and now it’s worse. Israel still wants and needs Palestinian workers in construction, agriculture and medicine, but unless these workers have a special permit from Israel’s military and someplace to stay in Israel, they cannot get to their jobs. Israel also announced that it wants Palestinians to continue going to their jobs in its settlements, which is strange since the coronavirus does not stop at a checkpoint or a settlement’s guardhouse. [In these challenging times, there are also positive developments.] The PA employs so many people which means that they will be getting paid and Palestinian banks have announced that for the duration of the crisis, they will not require loan payments.

There is more good news coming out of the business closings due to the pandemic. For the first time in my life, I am happy to see more Palestinian military in the streets enforcing the state of emergency. The PA has made a good decision here. Since the Palestinian healthcare system has been crippled by Israel’s military occupation, it cannot handle a large number of infected people. [In all of Palestine, there are 295 ventilators and 375 ICU beds.] It is good that the quarantine and business closures seem to be working. Air pollution has also dropped since there are no cars on the road.

I have also noticed that with all the business closings, people are repairing their properties, doing spring cleaning, plowing their fields, and planting trees and flowers. (Last week we planted thirty-eight fruit and almond trees at Wi’am.) The closure and quarantine are like a sabbatical. We work hard in our jobs, at school, and in political activism, and now it is time to take a break, pause and reflect. As our mosques and churches have been closed, and social life has ground to a halt, we are returning to our small, close-knit families. We’re taking care of each other, our elderly and the young. This is really good.

If people have cash, they can get food. There is also no shortage of food. And for those who do not have money, several different free food distribution systems have been set-up by individuals and civil society groups across the region. No one wants to ask for food, but for more and more Palestinians, it has become necessary. Wi’am is working with the Scouts to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables although we have had to stop giving fresh chicken due to the cost.

Bethlehem, West Bank. (MCC photo/Elizabeth Kessler, 2017)

Coronavirus is a pandemic that crosses the state borders of Israel and Palestine and affects Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Israelis and Palestinians need to resist the dangerous movement toward racial and religious exclusivism. This virus proves that we are all one, equally threatened by coronavirus. Israel and this situation need to change. We must live together in peace, working together for everyone’s well-being—Israeli and Palestinian—Jews, Muslims and Christians. There is no security in Israel unless there is also security in Palestine. The new name of the game is inclusivity and equality.

As a Christian Palestinian, I ask my Christian sisters and brothers not to forget us in our time of need. Call us. Send us emails. Pray for us. When it is again permitted, come visit us. We, who are  “living stones” in the Holy Land, represent you in the land where Jesus was born, lived, taught, was killed, and resurrected. We need to know that you care.  

Paul Parker, Peace Program Co-coordinator for MCC Palestine

To learn more about MCC’s work in Palestine and Israel visit our website here. To get involved, consider writing a letter to our Canadian government here encouraging our leaders to work for peace and to call for an end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.

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