BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) – The coronavirus has cast a veil over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, virtually shutting down the biblical city revered as the birthplace of Jesus at the height of the normally cheerful holiday season.
Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend on the city. Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The famous Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve.
“Bethlehem is dead,” said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem.
The hotel was the site of the first coronavirus outbreak in the West Bank – when a group of Greek tourists contracted the virus last March.
It kept its 25 workers on staff for several months but was ultimately unable to continue paying them. Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, said she was forced to close the hotel and fire all staff as there is no sign of the end of the pandemic or of the tourists visiting so soon.
“We had 351 tour groups booked into our hotel this year, each 150 people,” she said. “But they all canceled.”
Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city’s hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019. With Israel the main entry point for international visitors to the region, banning tourists in Due to the coronavirus crisis, and the West Bank border crossing with Jordan closed to foreigners, that number is close to zero this year, he said.
“Sixty percent of the city depends on tourism and their income disappeared when the tourists disappeared,” said al-Arja, a cousin of the owner of the Angel Hotel.
The Ambassador Hotel, located near the Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born, has reopened a floor in hopes that some local visitors will want to come and celebrate in the coming weeks.
Mahmoud Tarman, the hotel receptionist, said the ambassador brought back eight of his 60 employees to serve local customers. But with the West Bank economy devastated by repeated lockdowns, it’s still unclear how many people will come.
“At this time of year this empty hotel would be bustling with life. But as you can see, there is no life yet, not even a Christmas tree, ”he said, pointing to the empty hall.
The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this week imposed a new overnight lockdown to help contain a spike in coronavirus cases. People must stay indoors from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., and Bethlehem is included in the lockdown.
Officials say the lockdown could be extended until Christmas and the New Year if infection levels do not drop. The health ministry has reported a total of around 65,000 West Bank coronavirus cases and more than 620 deaths.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said the city planned to receive 3,000 guests, including local boy scout troops and musical groups from around the world who normally entertain visitors during the Christmas Eve festivities.
He said the famous Christmas tree lighting, scheduled for Thursday, will be limited to just 15 guests, including local mayors, district governor and Latin Patriarch and other clergymen. 85-year-old Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who usually joins the celebration, was invited but did not say if he would attend.
The midnight mass, a solemn event led by the Latin Patriarch usually attended by religious leaders, local figures and hundreds of pilgrims from around the world, has also been reduced, Salman said. He said officials were still working on the guest list, but it should include religious leaders and foreign diplomats. The event will be closed to the general public but broadcast live for people to watch.
“No one can take responsibility for inviting a large number of people to Christmas events,” he said. “Nothing will be the same during the pandemic. “
By Jelal Hassan