The brand-new Sabat Mall, which opened only a few months ago on one of Bethlehem’s main thoroughfares, lies completely empty. Although most of the mall’s shops are shuttered, George’s supermarket — which was supposed to have its opening last week — is open for all who wish to buy groceries. And yet, hardly anyone is walking into the state-of-the-art store.
Glass elevators glide up and down the mall’s floors. Instrumental covers of contemporary pop hits waft out of them, entertaining no one in particular. A few security guards stand by the door, wearing masks around their necks and smoking. “Foreigner?” they ask. “Palestinian,” we answer.
Foreigners used to be a valuable resource. Now, with the outbreak of the new coronavirus, which has infected at least 31 people in the West Bank, all but one in Bethlehem, they are considered dangerous. The first Palestinian cases of the virus were traced back to a group of Greek tourists.
Outside the mall, the streets of the city are mostly empty as well. The atmosphere is eerie, as if one had stepped into an alternate universe, a Bethlehem magically emptied of its inhabitants. In a painful twist on its main means of survival, the coronavirus outbreak here has upended the upcoming high season of tourism. Images of Manger Square being sterilized, of Palestinian policemen and Israeli soldiers in hazmat suits around checkpoints or inside the city, and of trucks burning frankincense and megaphoning prayers, evoke powerful — though dated — science fiction tropes and depictions of the end of the world.
Everyone seems to worry. The insidious effects of confinement have started to take hold: rising apprehension, inexplicable anger, and uncontrollable paranoia. The rumor mill has been spinning fast on messaging apps and social media, leaving Bethlehem at a fever pitch. Since last Friday, everyone in Bethlehem has at some point received purported lists of people who have the virus (complete with their ID numbers and full names), fake messages from doctors, and alarming voice messages pretending the situation is out of control. Ministries and authorities are urging the population to only read, circulate, and believe official statements.
By the fifth day of the lockdown, it had become increasingly complicated to know who to trust. And so, we turned toward time-tested home remedies: proponents of garlic argued with those who touted the merits of aniseed or those who swore up and down that exposure to the sun would swiftly kill the virus. All seemed to agree that no one knew what they were doing, and the best solution was to stay home and pray this all goes away.
Bethlehem is a city that is used to being lied to. Whether it is because of the incompetence of the Palestinian leadership, or because of the far-reaching propaganda of the Israeli occupation, or simply because of the public’s distrust of media, the city has learned to believe no one. Rumor and hearsay have become the only way news about the coronavirus travel, as a remedy to the perceived ineptitude (or malevolence, depending on who you ask) of the authorities.
One fake voice message in particular captured our imagination a few days ago. In it, a man purporting to work at the Palestinian Health Ministry announced to his friend that the ministry would impose a curfew over the city the next day, since the situation was allegedly far worse than previously imagined. The prankster was soon caught, and he released an apology.
But his stunt resonated because it spoke to one of the ongoing debates among Palestinians: would the Israelis or the Palestinian Authority impose a curfew on Bethlehem? Should they? Some believe it would be the best way to contain the spread of the virus. Others worry that we have been so thoroughly colonized that we have come to expect Israel’s unacceptable security measures as a means of saving us from ourselves.
We were all reminded of Bethlehem’s history, a city very familiar with confinements and lockdowns. Twenty years ago, practically to the month, Bethlehem had been reduced to a ghost town after the Israeli army laid siege to the Church of the Nativity, where Palestinians had taken shelter during the Second Intifada. During a biblical forty days, the city was emptied of life. Around that time, Israel imposed days or weeks-long curfews on the population to try and undermine morale and destroy the social fabric of West Bank cities.
Today, the atmosphere of the Second Intifada curfews permeates Bethlehem. Except that now, instead of Israeli soldiers and tanks roaming the city, Palestinian police in hazmat suits, wearing the now-ubiquitous masks that signal the presence of coronavirus, try to project an atmosphere of control against this shapeless threat.
These paranoia-fueled debates are in part a result of the complete lockdown of the city. Bethlehem seems to have become radioactive these past few days. Memes mocking the city’s new pariah status abound. Bethlehem is shut down: no-one goes in, no-one leaves, as if the city itself radiates disease. Palestinians have become, all at once, a threat, a health hazard, and a security risk.
The lockdown began in the period leading up to the Jewish holiday of Purim, for which Israel restricts travel for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank every year. Therefore, for many Palestinians, the measures taken by Israel, as the occupying power, as well as by the Palestinian Authority, are ambivalent. They are based on health assessments, but also on political and security considerations. The fact that announcements regarding this double lockdown came from different sources, including Israel’s Defense Ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military body responsible for administering the occupation, is seen as evidence of that.
Late Monday evening, Israel’s Health Ministry announced that it would exempt visitors returning from Rachel’s Tomb in the northern outskirts of Bethlehem from quarantine. This site, holy for Muslims, Jews and Christians, is now separated from the city through concrete barriers that are part of Israel’s apartheid wall.
The announcement by the Health Ministry thus traced a topography of danger and contagion, which closely follows that of the wall and of Israel’s imaginary frontier. Although Israel has more cases of the coronavirus than the West Bank, the perception is that a Palestinian body is more likely to fall ill, to contaminate, and to kill.
To be fair, Israel has also imposed stringent health measures in its own territory, quarantining tens of thousands of people and banning most incoming travelers. The shut down in Bethlehem is merely an extreme version of that. A sort of experiment, it seems.
Science fiction can give audiences the impression that the worst can only happen in dystopia — meaning, later, or somewhere far away. Here in Palestine, governments are already taking drastic measures to blur the line between health and security, synthesizing the two into a single tool used to scare us into docility.
This is not to say that there are not legitimate reasons to fear the spread of the virus, nor that confinement and social distancing are poor solutions. As confinement becomes the preferred solution, it is difficult to disagree with the Bethlehem lockdown.
However, the reflex to invoke security measures to contain a health hazard — especially in the West Bank — should make us wary. Israel’s drastic measures, both for its own society and for the occupied territories, are made possible because of its thorough know-how of population management, an expertise it has developed over decades, especially in the West Bank and Gaza. Its current management of the coronavirus is linked to its management of the occupied territories.
Shutting down checkpoints is not a novel measure, nor is sifting through workers to identify those who come from Bethlehem, or creating a distinction between good and bad Palestinian bodies. Confining Palestinians, monitoring their mobility, and surveilling their actions is, arguably, a crucial part of the occupation.
For Palestinians, the current closure on Bethlehem is neither a far-off dystopia nor a twenty-minutes-into-the-future fictional government. If anything, it is a blast from the past. The political uprising of twenty years ago and the health crisis of today are dealt with in familiar ways, using similar tools. These strategies are part of the very fabric of the occupation. The measures that seem unprecedented, terrifying, or confusing to the world are, for Palestinians, business as usual — just slightly worse.