Bethlehem residents returned to the Church of the Nativity as the holy site opened to visitors on Tuesday after being closed since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Judith Sudilovsky, CNS
But amid the joy was a feeling of uncertainty about their economic future, as pilgrims and tourists are not yet able to return.
Samir Hazboun, chairman of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, noted that unemployment was 95 per cent in the tourism sector of what he called the “Christian triangle” of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
“The Christian triangle … depends on tourism and handicrafts related to tourism. Whenever we look at tourism (now) around the world, we can see how difficult it is,” he said. Though the spring and summer months are generally low season for the area, residents are still unsure when and how many visitors will return in the ensuing season, he added.
“All the hotels and restaurants are closed, bus drivers are out of work, people working in the handicraft industry producing religious articles have been heavily affected. We are trying to develop a plan,” he said.
At the moment, even mail orders for the various cooperatives and fair trade workshops are not an option, because international shipping is not yet possible, he said.
“The social impact of the economic crisis on the Christian Palestinian community (will be serious.) The Christians will be heavily affected, as their income is mainly related to the tourism and service sector,” Mr Hazboun said.
Unemployment in all the Palestinian areas has doubled from the 22 per cent pre-pandemic level, he said.
Fr Rami Asakrieh of St Catherine Parish said almost 450 families from his parish depend solely on the tourism sector for their income, and the parish council has been trying to organise special help for them.
He said Israel, which is also slowly opening up its economy, has not yet given entry permission to all the Palestinians who worked in the construction industry to return to work in Israel.