In the West Bank, Coronavirus Is Bad, but the Economy Is Worse

As the number of cases spikes, the Palestinian government is trying to convey that the situation is under control – but public criticism keeps growing

Jack Khoury
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A municipal worker walks in front of closed shops along a street in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 6, 2020.
A municipal worker walks in front of closed shops along a street in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 6, 2020.Credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP
Jack Khoury

A month ago, the Palestinian government could speak with great satisfaction about beating the coronavirus. The data it presented about combating the virus after two months of strict regulations, including during the month of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday, were proof.

Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila announced on June 6 that 87 percent of COVID-19 patients in the West Bank had recovered, that the rate of infection was very low and that most patients were concentrated in the Jerusalem area where the Palestinian Authority has very limited control. Kaila said 643 Palestinians had the virus – 319 in the Jerusalem area, 70 in Gaza and the rest scattered around the West Bank. There were no seriously ill patients and just five fatalities from the virus.

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These figures led the PA to lift most of the restrictions from the Palestinian public. The mood on the streets of the West Bank was one of a near-complete return to normalcy. The economy showed signs of recovery, with normally bustling markets in Hebron, Nablus and Jenin coming back to life after being practically deserted since March.

That was a month ago. Now the Palestinian government appears to be contending with a much more severe crisis and a drastic increase in the number of infections. This has yet to translate into a dangerous rise in the number of seriously ill and intubated patients, though the mortality rate rose significantly last week, with the number of fatalities now standing at 22 and the number of active cases at 4,874, mostly in the Hebron area. The number of seriously ill patients rose to 23, including six people on ventilators, but the most worrisome figure was the dramatic plunge in the percentage of recovered patients, down from 87 percent a month ago to just 20 percent in recent days.

The latest figures and the big rate of increase drove the PA to return to the lockdown policy. Last week, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ordered a five-day lockdown that was supposed to end Wednesday, but it was extended by nine days. The lockdown includes a ban on crossing between different West Bank regions, as well as a ban on large gatherings, with an emphasis on weddings and mourning tents, in addition to a closure of all businesses and government offices.

People walk past closed shops in Hebron in the West Bank on July 2, 2020.
People walk past closed shops in Hebron in the West Bank on July 2, 2020. Credit: HAZEM BADER / AFP

In the first wave of the pandemic, the PA attributed most of the infections to Palestinian laborers employed in Israel, as well as to tourists – especially in Bethlehem, the first West Bank city to be locked down at the start of the crisis. But in this current second wave, the main cause is believed to be weddings and other social events. Shtayyeh stated that 82 percent of infections originated at weddings and mourning tents, calling upon clan and family leaders to hold off on weddings and other large gatherings.

The PA said the decision to return to the lockdown policy grew out of the public’s unwillingness to adhere to instructions, and to a rapid return to routine, including numerous weddings and other social events at the end of Ramadan and the holiday vacation.

Prior to the reimposition of the lockdown, the public was not heeding the government’s instructions strictly enough. People sought a quick return to normal, largely because of financial distress and skepticism that the government would give economic support to the small businesses that are the basis of the West Bank economy.

Abdo Idris, head of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce, told Haaretz that the economic implications of the coronavirus have become Palestinians’ main concern: “Yes there is a health risk but what people are really thinking about is how they are going to support their families. A city like Hebron is a central anchor for trade and attracts a lot of business, including from Arabs in Israel, and it has been almost completely shut down since March.

“We worked for a few weeks after the holiday and now we’re going into lockdown again,” said Idris. “A business owner who employed four or five workers has no way to pay their wages now, so everything is stuck.” He added that for now things are still somewhat under control and people are looking out for one another, but if this situation continues much longer, things will get very difficult and many businesses won’t be able to recover. “I’m not using the term ‘catastrophe’ yet but we’re headed in that direction if there is no recovery,” said Idris.

According to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, prior to the virus crisis, unemployment in the West Bank was 25 percent. An analysis of the workforce found that 15 percent of workers were employed in civil service and 20 percent in Israel and the settlements, with the rest in private businesses, primarily shops and factories. The average monthly wage was between 2,000 and 4,000 shekels ($591 and $1,182). The bureau is currently compiling the data regarding the second quarter, and all signs point to a current unemployment rate of 40 percent or higher.

People are accusing the government of losing control and trying to pin the blame on the public. Journalist and Hebron resident Akram Intasheh published an open letter to Shtayyeh: “Come to us and hear the taxi driver tell you whether he is able to make a living amid the lockdown, whether the proprietors of the market stalls have any way left to make a living, how the small business owner is already losing hope and doesn’t know how he’ll pay the rent and if he’ll have any money to pay his workers. Come to us and hear directly from the public and don’t believe the senior officials and all the different spokesmen who say that everything is under control. We’ll eventually emerge from the coronavirus crisis but the question is how and what shape we’ll be in when we come out of it, and whether everyone is doing his job properly.”

People walk past closed shops in the city of Nablus in the West Bank on July 2, 2020.
People walk past closed shops in the city of Nablus in the West Bank on July 2, 2020.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP

In Nablus, furniture shopowner Abu Yusuf said, “We operate here in a very simple circle – civil servants and laborers receive their pay and they come to the shops, as do Arabs from Israel, then they buy things and the traders import more goods. As soon as one part of the circle is hurt, the whole thing comes to a halt.” He says the fact that PA workers are receiving only partial pay and have no money to spare, combined with the closing of the checkpoints and the appeals to Arabs in Israel not to come to the West Bank, has “dragged us all into a deep recession and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Jaber Shtayyeh, a Nablus businessman who normally employs 25 people in his plumbing fixtures store, says that for the last four months, business has been down by at least 70 percent. “In this situation, I had to reduce the manpower by half and pay them only a half-salary. The situation was tough even before the coronavirus, and now with this crisis it keeps getting worse. On the one hand, they say it’s a health risk, but on the other hand we don’t know how we’ll make a living and provide a living for dozens of other families too.”

Senior government officials who spoke with Haaretz acknowledged that at this stage, the government does not have an aid plan that could support employers, especially in small businesses, though they say the main problem right now is to find revenue with which to pay the salaries of PA civil servants who were not paid for June and received half a salary for May.

Last month the government was able to raise money from the private sector and paid out about 700,000 shekels to 40,000 workers, while business owners were offered loans at relatively convenient conditions. But both the workers and the businesspeople describe this as token aid that cannot provide an adequate economic safety net.

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