COVID spoils another Christmas in the Holy Land
By Isabel Kershner
There were only a few shopping days left until Christmas, but in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, most of the shops were shuttered.
The owner of Santa Maria Souvenirs, David Joseph, a Palestinian Christian, glumly padlocked his storefront and said there was no point in waiting around. As church bells rang out, “Silent Night” wafted plaintively out of an empty espresso bar into a deserted cobblestone alley.
“It’s sad,” said Alessandro Salameh, another Palestinian Christian who was running the bar. “You see, it’s like a ghost town.”
Israel, in an effort to contain the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus, has barred entry to most international travelers until at least the end of December, leaving the holy sites of the Old City devoid of foreign visitors for a second straight Christmas.
But those who depend on tourism or whose relatives are unable to visit have been frustrated by the Israeli government, which they have accused of inconsistency and even discrimination in applying travel restrictions. The government allowed entry to international beauty pageant contestants and had given special approval to young Jews on trips meant to strengthen their ties to Israel — while barring Christian pilgrims.
At a desolate bend in Jerusalem’s Old City, the jolly red entrance to the house of Issa Kassissieh, the traditional Santa Claus of the Holy Land, promised some festive cheer. But his door was closed.
Israel has largely barred foreign visitors since the pandemic first hit in March 2020. After gingerly allowing in test groups, it allowed fully vaccinated tourists in early November.
But the gates abruptly closed again four weeks later with the emergence of omicron. Access is also barred to the occupied territories — including the West Bank town of Bethlehem — where entry and exit are controlled by Israel.
In the end, only a few hundred thousand foreign nationals visited in 2020 compared with more than 4.5 million in 2019, a bumper year for tourism when Christian pilgrims accounted for roughly one-quarter of the influx.
Foreign visitors were mostly barred last Christmas, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, were heading into a new spike of infections.
The Old City, in predominantly Palestinian, Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, is still feeling the effects of all of the pandemic-era restrictions.
Israelis, meanwhile, have been allowed to travel abroad except to a growing number of countries on a so-called red list. But even though many prefer to avoid the complications of international travel, internal tourism has only partly compensated for the drop in foreign visitors.
Official data indicated a decrease in monthly hotel occupancy rates in Jerusalem to 30% in October 2021, from 76% in October 2019.
Tiberias and Nazareth, prime destinations in northern Israel for Christian pilgrims, also saw sharp decreases. According to the Israel Hotel Association, Nazareth’s occupancy rate plummeted to 13% this fall, from 80% in fall 2019.
And Bethlehem, venerated as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, is looking at another gloomy season.
Despite the complications of travel and economic hardship wrought by the virus, Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, said there had been hopes this year that up to 15,000 pilgrims would come for Christmas.
“For people in Bethlehem, that would have been important oxygen,” he said. “The community is suffering.”
Israel, which has a population of about 9 million, has been a trailblazer in vaccination and booster campaigns, but more than 8,000 Israelis have died of the virus. With at least 340 confirmed cases of omicron, Israeli leaders said late Tuesday that they were planning to administer a fourth shot to try to ward off a new wave of infections.
Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has acknowledged that the early and swift decision to limit entry again seemed unnecessary to many, but he defended it Sunday.
“This government did a major thing,” he claimed, buying time and delaying the variant’s spread in Israel. “What a pity that other countries did not do as we did.”
Inconsistencies in the government’s pre-Christmas travel policies have been a source of acrimony.
Some Israelis and Palestinians have grumbled about the country hosting the international Miss Universe pageant this month while their close relatives and tourists were kept out. Others have questioned the logic of allowing residents to continue to take vacations abroad to countries where infection rates are still unclear.
Abunassar publicly denounced what he viewed as discrimination, with the Israeli government approving Jewish Birthright groups while barring Christian pilgrims.
“This is not acceptable to us,” he said in an interview. “What if it happened the other way round, and another country in the world allowed in Christians but not Jews? People would automatically scream antisemitism.”
Most stinging for Abunassar was the recent Israeli approval for the resumption of some Birthright Israel tours — the all-expenses-paid, 10-day trips for young Jews. The trips, partly funded by the Israeli government, are meant to bond Jews in the diaspora to Israel and to bolster Jewish identity.
Noa Bauer, Birthright’s vice president for marketing, said last week that several hundred participants from the United States and Canada who met the vaccination criteria had been expected to travel to Israel before Christmas. But then Israel put both countries on its red list, meaning that anyone arriving from there must quarantine for a week. That made the quick trips impractical, and Birthright has suspended all trips until Jan. 15.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry rejected the accusation of religious discrimination as “outrageous, false and dangerous.” It said the government committee dealing with exceptional requests had also issued permits for priests to enter the country for the holidays.
Sabine Haddad, an Interior Ministry spokesperson, said that Birthright was an educational program, not a tourism venture, and that Jewish tourists had also been barred during Jewish festivals like Passover and the High Holy Days.