Without Even a Single Coronavirus Case, Nablus Is Glum and Subdued

The Palestinian Authority has imposed strict rules on what can remain open, but nobody wants to think about what would happen if the virus were to spread through Palestinian towns

A Nablus mosque, March 11, 2020.
A Nablus mosque, March 11, 2020.Credit: Mohammed Turabi
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Spring weather is usually a sign of good things to come for Nablus and the surrounding area. The sunshine and warmer weather usually provide a boost to commerce and make the West Bank city livelier. But since last weekend, when the Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency following a coronavirus outbreak in Bethlehem, the mood in Nablus has been more sullen.

Offices are empty and some restaurants and cafes have shut their doors of their own accord and sent their employees home.

Not a single case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Nablus, but fear of infection from the virus is widespread. As of Thursday morning, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported a total of 30 corona cases in Bethlehem and another case in Tul Karm.

People getting their temperature checked in Nablus, March 11, 2020.
People getting their temperature checked in Nablus, March 11, 2020.Credit: Mohammed Turabi

The Palestinian government has ordered a halt to all public gatherings in the parts of the West Bank under its control and has imposed a total closure on Bethlehem as well as the adjacent towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

Everywhere else in the territory of the Palestinian Authority, operations at all schools and universities have been halted and public spaces, including restaurants, banquet halls and large commercial centers, have been shut down. Churches and mosques that generally attract tourists and worshippers have also been shut.

Two-shekel date juice

Wearing traditional garb and sporting sunglasses, Mohammed al-Bakri stands near the entrance to Nablus selling cold date juice. A full glass costs two shekels (55 cents) but the supply of disposable plastic cups that he still has on hand is a sign that business is far from brisk.

Disinfecting cars in Nablus, March 11, 2020.
Disinfecting cars in Nablus, March 11, 2020. Credit: Mohammed Turabi

“There has been a drastic drop in traffic here all week,” he says. “From here, I see a handful of cars. Commercial vehicles are coming in, but not many passenger cars or taxis. The main variable that has entered the picture this week is corona, not the political or security situation, and everything is almost at a standstill.”

Vehicles entering the city are forced to a halt by Palestinian Authority staff in blue overalls who are equipped with masks and containers with disinfectant. Every car that they stop undergoes a thorough cleaning.

There are restaurants, cafes and furniture stores near the city’s western entrance, which is named for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In normal times, heavy traffic in the area moves at a snail’s pace, but this week the thoroughfare is nearly empty. A veteran cab driver, Abu Hisham, stands near the main road leading into the city and cleans his car’s windows. He points out a large parking lot across the road where dozens of yellow cabs are parked, as their owners stand nearby smoking.

“Nablus is an urban area, a main commercial center, but you can’t make a living just from the city’s residents. Most of the work we get is from residents of nearby villages, but for the past several days, business has mainly come from city residents,” Abu Hisham said. “There’s no reason other than corona. Without a doubt, people are afraid.”

Ismail Fahd, who owns a men’s clothing store, and Ismail Kalbuni, the owner of a sandwich shop, are seated at the corner of Sufian Street in the city center. Usually the street, which leads to Nablus’ Old City, is bustling, particularly on weekends, but last Wednesday it was rather lifeless.

A Nablus felafel stand, March 11, 2020.
A Nablus felafel stand, March 11, 2020.Credit: Mohammed Turabi

The pair were joined by Abu Daya, who left a carpet shop holding a smoker’s water pipe.

“How much did you make today?” Kalbuni asked Abu Daya. “I sold a rug for 30 shekels ($8) and ate breakfast for 20. So my net profit was 10 shekels,” Abu Daya replied.

Contingency plans

“On a normal day, this street is full of people from Nablus and beyond, and Arabs from Israel. But now it’s all dead,” Kalbuni lamented. “Nablus is still described as a corona-free zone, but if there is an outbreak, no one knows how things will develop. I very much hope that the government has some kind of contingency plan.”

Fahd said tourist-related business suffered a tough blow over the past week. “[Nablus] doesn’t know how to handle it in the long run. I’m in the clothing business and have already heard friends in several places say that orders have been issued to cut staff or to pay only partial salaries. It’s a reflection of the fear over what’s to come.”

A Nablus street, March 11, 2020.
A Nablus street, March 11, 2020.Credit: Mohammed Turabi

There is barely anyone attending noon prayers at the mosques. Some worshippers bring their own prayer rugs. Others arrive with handkerchiefs and disinfectant to clean the area around them. “People aren’t taking chances,” says Sheikh Ahsan Shuman.“Fewer people are praying here. They’re praying at home instead.”

Atef Daghlas, a local journalist, had this take on the situation: “In the areas of the Palestinian Authority, it looks like everything is being done in a slapdash manner, but the public is actually following the required procedures. Seeing people coming to mosques with handkerchiefs and disinfectant is a new thing.”

The falafel stands in both Nablus and the West Bank city of Jenin are either nearly empty or shuttered. In Jenin, all of the restaurants have been closed on orders from the local governor, Akram Rajoub. Anyone wanting restaurant food currently needs to make do with takeout.

While it’s easy to gauge what the situation is in the main Palestinian West Bank towns, it’s harder to get a sense of what’s happening in the villages. A Palestinian intelligence source said one of the reasons that strict closure orders were issued is to address that.

“You shouldn’t forget that the Palestinian Authority is a large apparatus that is dependant on a lot of factors, particularly Israel, and it has limited resources,” the official said. “If Europe and even Israel are showing signs of distress and fear, then clearly the situation for us is much more complicated. That’s why the government took swift and drastic steps.”

Most of the hospitals in areas under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority haven’t been under strain at this point, since the outbreak has been largely limited to Bethlehem. But at the same time, the question remains over whether the Palestinian health system could handle a situation in which the coronavirus spreads to all of the West Bank towns. In Nablus, they’re trying not to even entertain the thought.

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