In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, people are living through double isolation amid a one-month state of emergency.
Bethlehem has turned into a ghost town since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared a 30-day state of emergency in the occupied West Bank last week after the first cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the city, the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
The streets are very much empty, hotels are closed, most shops in the city have their shutters down except for grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies. There are no tourists in sight.
“We have decided to declare a state of emergency in all Palestinian areas to confront the danger of the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading,” Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said, reading from a decree from the president.
The Israeli army imposed a complete lockdown on Bethlehem, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) ordered the Church of the Nativity to close, and evacuated foreign tourists from West Bank hotels. It also ordered all schools, universities, mosques, and churches closed, and called for cancelling hotel reservations.
“The PA prevents residents from leaving, on top of that, Israel sealed off the city. So it feels very claustrophobic,” Fadi Kattan, a chef, restaurant and guesthouse owner from Bethlehem, commented. “It’s a bit like a science fiction film where we’re all trapped in the middle.”
The first seven people diagnosed with Covid-19 virus are all linked to a group of Greek tourists who stayed at the Angel Hotel, in the nearby town of Beit Jala, which was then placed under quarantine.
A total of 35 cases have tested positive for the virus so far in the Occupied Territories, according to government sources, with one case in the northern town of Tulkarem and the rest concentrated in the district of Bethlehem.
Of the 35 confirmed patients, 13 cases are females and 22 are males, and three cases are under 18 years old. All of the infected people remain in a stable condition, aside from one who is being held in a hospital due to deteriorated health.
Kattan said that, apart from Beit Jala’s Angel Hotel, another hotel and a complex hosting a guesthouse, kindergarten and a church in Bethlehem are the other two sites where the first infections originated from. Local residents are worried, he continued, because everybody has somebody among the hotel staff that they know or are related to in any of the three epicentres.
Nour Odeh, a communications consultant based in Ramallah, noted that while Israeli authorities have been cooperating with their Palestinian counterparts closely to contain Covid-19 “out of mutual interest”, Tel Aviv has further restricted the already limited access of Palestinians to Jerusalem.
“It’s feeling like you have to deal with an extra layer of misfortune. Time is never good if you are Palestinian and are used to all these restrictions,” the consultant sighed.
In the West Bank, Israel controls all entry and exit points including those leading to East Jerusalem, which it has annexed, often denying passage based solely on its own considerations. Inside Jerusalem, Israeli checkpoints cut the Palestinian neighbourhoods on the other side of the Separation Wall off from the rest of the city, forcing Palestinian Jerusalemites to cross busy, crowded checkpoints in order to enter their own city. Israel also controls Palestinian movement inside the Occupied Territories through security checkpoints and physical obstacles, disrupting the daily lives of all residents.
Following the coronavirus outbreak in Palestine, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennet decided that Palestinians from the Bethlehem area should be barred from entering Israel, although many of them work there. Only workers under the age of 50 from the West Bank are reportedly allowed in.
Moreover, Israeli officials announced last week they would close off Palestinian areas of the West Bank for four days during the Jewish holiday of Purim. Israel frequently imposes similar restrictions on Palestinian territories over Jewish holidays. During such periods of closure, Palestinians are usually prevented from working in Israel or accessing medical treatment there, unless they obtain special entry permits from Israeli authorities.
“The real control is in the hands of the Israelis, we don’t have sovereignty,” Kattan told TRT World. “The Israeli occupation is still here and, on the other hand, we have to cooperate with Israel on fighting this infectious disease.”
Like other Palestinians, he is critical of the stricter measures taken in the West Bank than inside Israel despite the fact that there are more cases in Israeli territory since those who are ill in Bethlehem contracted the virus from people who came via Israel.
While Bethlehem is blockaded for its Palestinian residents, Israeli settlers living in illegal colonies in the Occupied Territories are free to travel anywhere.
Some critics have accused Israel of using the closure in the West Bank to accelerate the annexation of Palestinian land while protecting Israeli settlers' attacks against Palestinian civilians.
"As the international community seeks to cooperate in combating the spread of the Covid-19 virus, Israel is exploiting the situation to expedite de facto annexation of Palestinian land while providing protection and cover to armed Israeli settlers in their terror attacks against defenseless Palestinian communities across the occupied West Bank," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO's Executive Committee, in a press statement published by WAFA news agency on Wednesday.
Ashrawi alluded to the construction of a road connecting the West Bank settlement of Maale Adumim, which only Israelis will be allowed to use.
Since the Bethlehem area was put in lockdown, there have been increasing reports of violent attacks by settlers against Palestinian homes and residents of the West Bank, under the protection of Israeli forces.
Although the virus has been mostly confined to the Bethlehem area, other districts across the West Bank have stepped up preventative measures. Movement between governorates is being prohibited unless necessary. Wedding halls, cafes, gyms, clubs in different cities are currently closed.
The governor of the Ramallah district ordered on Tuesday that all restaurants, cafes and sports facilities be closed indefinitely, and suspended indoor and outdoor public gatherings. In Hebron, health workers were deployed across the city to disinfect municipal facilities, public parks, bus and taxi stations, and mosques.
In Nablus, the majority of shops have been shut, and schools and university faculties are not functioning according to residents. Although unofficial, there are rumours that there may be some infections in the area after a group of Korean tourists, four of them carrying the virus, visited the northern town.
One Nabulsi named Sanaa has stopped visiting or receiving relatives, and is trying not to go out.
“Right now, my husband and I are not attending gatherings, and avoiding crowded places”, she stated. “It’s very difficult for us, we have a strong social culture here in Nablus.”
Palestinian and Jordanian authorities are studying the possibility of closing Palestine’s only border with the outside world, the Allenby Bridge, between the West Bank and Jordan, after the Jordanian government decided on Monday to shut its side of the crossing to any non-Palestinians.
The Palestinian ministry of health has been urging people to stay in their homes, and avoid contact with people outside their immediate family as much as possible.
The Palestinian government was responsive from the outset taking early precautionary steps, being well aware that the health system could not handle any possible flux of critical cases of Covid-19.
Each city in the West Bank, starting with Bethlehem, is reportedly planning to set up its own quarantined area for possible cases of coronavirus. The health ministry is converting a local drug and alcohol-addiction treatment centre into a quarantine facility which will open soon.
Healthcare personnel who are under-staffed and overstretched in normal circumstances are now dealing with the new epidemic, doing their best to access communities where needed, including in remote areas.
People are restricting their movements within their towns, cancelling family visits and events, and putting themselves under quarantine.
One major challenge the ministry of health is faced with is getting test kits and medical equipment to treat coronavirus, which entails securing permits from Israel and ensuring provision of medical supplies to Palestinians in the West Bank living in isolated towns and villages due to the hundreds of Israeli-imposed checkpoints, artificial barriers, roadblocks and the Wall.
Odeh said that the ministry is now bypassing the problem by getting equipment and healthcare items via the World Health Organization (WHO), and delivering licences to local businesses in order to produce hand sanitisers instead of having to import and risking delay.
She also mentioned there has been many spontaneous local initiatives aimed at delivering food and fruit juices to those under quarantine, and supporting people across different communities.
“There is no shortage in food nor lack of medicine. In spite of all the complications under occupation, the Palestinian authorities have maintained some sense of normalcy, and the health ministry is handling this novel virus.” Odeh pointed out proudly. “That’s quite remarkable!”
Kattan underlined that the epidemic outbreak also carries its heavy economic impact, especially in the tourist city of Bethlehem. Hotel and restaurant employees not only have suddenly found themselves out of work, he explained, but they will only get paid for the days work being contracted on a daily basis.