JERUSALEM – Christmas was just a few days away, but most shops in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City remained closed.
The owner of Santa Maria Souvenirs, David Joseph, a Palestinian Christian, locked the front of his store, saying there was no point in waiting. As the church bells rang, “Silent Night” came from an empty espresso bar covered in a deserted cobblestone alley.
“It’s sad,” said Alessandro Salameh, another Palestinian Christian who runs the bar. “You see, it’s like a ghost town.”
Israel has barred the entry of most international travelers until at least the end of December, in an effort to contain the highly contagious Omicron version of the coronavirus, thereby depriving the holy sites of the Old City from foreign visitors for a second straight Christmas. has given.
But those who depend on tourism or whose relatives are unable to travel are frustrated with the Israeli government, which they have accused of inconsistency and even discrimination in enforcing the travel ban. The government allowed international beauty pageant contestants and young Jews to enter the tour, which was intended to strengthen its ties with Israel – except for Christian pilgrims.
At a desolate turn in Jerusalem’s Old City, the joyful red entrance to the home of Issa Kasisih, the traditional Santa Claus of the Holy Land, promises some festive cheer. But his door was closed.
A neighbor shouted up to the balcony and pulled out Tammy Cohen, an American volunteer at Santa’s residence and a rare visitor from abroad. She said that Santa was tired of going to hospitals and schools and taking naps.
“It’s a miracle I’ll be here at Christmas,” said Ms Cohen, explaining that she had traveled from her home in North Carolina in November, when Israel’s airport was briefly open to foreign tourists. , and he decided to stay for a while.
Israel has largely banned foreign visitors since the pandemic first hit in March 2020. After oddly allowing in testing groups, it allowed tourists to be fully vaccinated in early November.
But four weeks later, with Omicron’s arrival, the gates suddenly closed again. Entry is also restricted to the occupied territories – including the West Bank city of Bethlehem – where entry and exit are controlled by Israel.
Finally, only a few million foreign nationals visited in 2020, compared to more than 4.5 million in 2019, a bumper year for tourism when Christian pilgrims accounted for nearly a quarter of the influx.
Foreign visitors were mostly barred last Christmas, when Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which practice limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, were heading into a new spike of infections.
The Old City, mainly Palestinian, in Israel-linked East Jerusalem, is still feeling the effects of all the pandemic-era sanctions.
Meanwhile, Israelis have been allowed to travel abroad, except in a growing number of countries on the so-called Red List. But even though many people prefer to avoid the complexities of international travel, inland tourism has only partially compensated for the decline in foreign visitors.
Official data indicated a 30 percent reduction in monthly hotel occupancy rates in Jerusalem in October 2021 from 76 percent in October 2019.
There was also a sharp decrease in Tiberias and Nazareth, the main sites for Christian pilgrims in northern Israel. According to the Israel Hotel Association, Nazareth’s occupancy rate fell to 13 percent this fall, from 80 percent in the fall of 2019.
December 22, 2021 at 9:49 am ET
And Bethlehem, known as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, is looking forward to another gloomy season.
Despite travel complications and the economic hardship posed by the virus, Wadi Abunassar, an advisor to church leaders in the Holy Land, said this year it was expected 15,000 pilgrims would arrive for Christmas.
“For the people in Bethlehem, this would have been vital oxygen,” he said. “The community is suffering.”
Israel, which has a population of about nine million, has been a leader in vaccination and booster campaigns, but more than 8,000 Israelis have died from the virus. With at least 340 confirmed cases of Omicron, Israeli leaders said late Tuesday they were planning to administer a fourth shot to try to stave off a new wave of infections.
Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, acknowledged that the quick and quick decision to re-limit entry seemed unnecessary to many, but he defended it on Sunday.
“This government did a major job,” he claimed, buying time and delaying the spread of the version in Israel. “It’s a pity that other countries didn’t do what we did.”
Discrepancies in the government’s pre-Christmas travel policies have been a source of bitterness.
Some Israelis and Palestinians have complained about the country hosting the international Miss Universe pageant this month, while their close relatives and tourists were excluded. Others have questioned the logic of allowing residents to continue vacationing abroad in countries where infection rates are still unclear.
Coronavirus pandemic: Key things to know
Mr. Abunassar publicly denounced what he saw as discrimination, with the Israeli government accepting Jewish visitors except Christian pilgrims.
“This is not acceptable to us,” he said in an interview. “What if it happened the other way around, and in another country in the world Christians were allowed but not Jews? People would automatically shout anti-Semitism.”
Most stinging for Mr Abunassar was the recent Israeli approval to resume some birthright Israel tours – all-expenses-paid 10-day trips for young Jews. The trips, partly funded by the Israeli government, are meant to connect Jews in the diaspora to Israel and strengthen Jewish identity.
Birthright’s vice president for marketing Noah Bauer said last week that several hundred participants from the United States and Canada who met vaccination criteria expected to travel to Israel before Christmas. But then Israel put both the countries in its red list, that is, any person coming from there will have to quarantine for a week. This made quick visits impractical, and Birthright has suspended all trips until January 15.
Israel’s foreign ministry dismissed the allegation of religious discrimination as “outrageous, false and dangerous”. It said the government committee dealing with extraordinary requests had also issued permits to priests to enter the country for holidays.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Haddad said the birthright was an educational event, not a tourism enterprise, and that Jewish tourists were also banned during Jewish festivals such as Passover and the High Holy Days.
Anton Sabella, owner of a new business in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, The Gateway Bookshop and Wine Bar, said tourism from abroad probably won’t fully recover in the future, so he is also grateful for the support of local Palestinians. Some Israeli Jews and expatriates who venture into the region.
“So far,” he said, “we’re hanging there.”
After decades of migration, only 1 percent of the population in the Holy Land is Christian. But after sunset, decorative lights are turned on in the Christian Quarter, and a small Christmas market attracts local residents of all faiths who want to get a taste of the holiday.
Back at Santa’s home, Mr. Kasisih, a Palestinian Christian, swung into action, receiving groups from across the country. He said he had 14,000 visitors last December and was expecting more this year.
There may be some tourists, but Mr. Kasisih at least brings some of the Christmas spirit.
“Last year, I saw how stressed the kids were,” he said. “I saw on their faces that I had brought some life back to them.”