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Virus brings job drought to Holy Land

18 December 2020

Gerald Butt reports on a tougher year than normal for Palestinian Christians


The RC Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton, and other clergy at a service in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, at the beginning of Advent

The RC Custodian of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton, and other clergy at a service in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, at the beginning of Ad...

THE Holy Land has experienced many grim years over the decades, but few to match the challenges of 2020. These have come not just from disease and economic hardship affecting the whole world, but also from domestic and regional political setbacks.

Covid-19 has dealt a severe blow to everyday life. The Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Revd Suheil Dawani, in a seasonal message, said that this year’s Christmas celebration “will be both a sad one, yet also a hopeful one”, owing to the prospect of mass-produced anti-Covid vaccines.

For the foreseeable future, however, the inhabitants of the Holy Land must cope with both the disease and its chronic economic impact. “Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been particularly hard hit,” Archbishop Dawani said, “because many families here have structured their livelihoods to serve the millions of pilgrims who normally visit the holy sites of our Christian faith each year. Now, these families are struggling. They have little or no income, because the flow of pilgrims has been reduced to nearly zero.”

Families face difficulties paying bills, and, in some cases, buying food. “We have never had to support so many people through unemployment before,” the chief executive of the charity Friends of the Holy Land, Brendan Metcalfe, said. “Bethlehem churches, who have also helped so far, are now running out of funds, and there is nothing forthcoming from the Palestinian Authority. There is no furlough scheme or other form of safety net; so people really need the aid we can give.”

The battles against poverty and unemployment will be won only when the virus is defeated. As yet, there is no sign of this happening. In the small and densely packed Gaza Strip — home to about two million Palestinians — the medical authorities are struggling. “The whole of Gaza is now a red area,” the director of the Anglican-funded Al Ahli Arab Hospital, in Gaza City, Suhaila Tarazi, said. “For a long time, our area was designated green.”

In the spring, Covid-19 was not a big problem. But the return to Gaza in the summer of thousands of Palestinians, who had been stranded without funds in Egypt and Jordan, caused the disease to spread rapidly. Two hospitals in the Gaza Strip are dedicated to the treatment of Covid-19 cases. Al Ahli has donated 15 beds to them.

The closure of health centres in the Strip has greatly increased the workload of Al Ahli Hospital. “We used to perform seven operations a day,” Ms Tarazi said. “Now, we do 20, all of them urgent. Another problem is that a strictly enforced curfew and a ban on travel between districts mean that some staff can’t move to and from home; so they have to be accommodated in the hospital.”

In general, the overcrowding in Gaza makes social distancing difficult. “There’s no distance between us and our neighbours,” Ms Tarazi said. “When you have so many people living in one small house, what can you do? And many people still don’t understand the need for distancing.” With no work or income for most Gazans, and a rampant disease, “there is a sense of hopelessness.”

A failure to grasp the full implications of the pandemic is something that the Ven. Samuel Barhoum, President of Christ Anglican School, in Nazareth, has noticed: “Some people still don’t understand the situation. As a church and a school we have to provide therapy; for it’s not only a financial crisis, it’s also a spiritual and psychological one.”

Christ School has hired a psychologist to work with students online, “because we can’t work one-on-one in school. We’re providing many kinds of therapy: we have a photo-therapy specialist, encouraging students to express themselves through the photos they take; and we have a specialist to help students who are slow at adapting to online studies.”

Archdeacon Barhoum’s energy and Archbishop Dawani’s optimism provide shafts of light amid the gloom in the Holy Land. The Archbishop also expressed the hope that 2021 would “bring a renewed commitment among the nations of the world to work for a just and lasting peace, here in the land where Jesus was born”. On this issue, the signs look hopeful to some, increasingly hopeless to others.

Leading the hopefuls is the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his supporters. In September, when the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain normalised relations with Israel with the signing in Washington of the Abraham Accords (News, 18 September), Mr Netanyau declared: “This day is a pivot of history. It heralds the dawn of peace.” He predicted that other Arab states would follow suit.

He was right. Sudan and Morocco, after receiving strong incentives from the Trump administration, have done so. Today, six Arab states — the two latest, plus Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain — have open relationships with Israel. The likelihood is that the number will rise further. Saudi Arabia, while sending out conflicting signals, is now allowing Israeli aircraft to fly through its airspace, and Mr Netanyahu met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the kingdom. At some point, it is likely to take the plunge.

These developments are momentous — to the Palestinians’ detriment. For decades after Israel’s creation, solidarity with the Palestinian cause was part of every Arab’s DNA. It was woven through the official ideology and rhetoric of every Arab state, conservative monarchies and military dictatorships alike.

Bit by bit, Arab support is being eroded. The long-standing principle of no Arab recognition of Israel ahead of the latter giving up occupied land is being abandoned. This is why the signs look increasingly hopeless for the inhabitants of the Holy Land who continue to demand the creation of a Palestinian state.

When the UAE and Bahrain normalised relations, Mr Netanyahu agreed to suspend a scheme to annex about one-third of the West Bank (News, 4 September). But this has not stopped the expansion of the Israeli presence: the government, over the past couple of months, has approved the construction of 1700 new settlement buildings.

In the view of the left-wing Israeli activist Avner Gvaryahu, writing in Haaretz newspaper, all the recent developments — Arab normalisation moves, expanded settler presence — point to one end: “thwarting the possibility of establishing an independent Palestinian state”.

Despite this, a final note of optimism comes from Archbishop Dawani. Christ was born at a time “when many were suffering under Roman occupation. Yet the story of Christ’s birth reminds us that God did not give up on the world. God did not give up on his people.”

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