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From the field

Eyes Wide Open | Photo Blog

Corona in Bethlehem

April 2020

מרווה ר'אנם, בצלםMarwa Ghannam, a data coordinator with B’Tselem, moved to Bethlehem just days before the city shut down. 

From a hopeful move to almost complete lockdown

I’m 30 years old, from Haifa. I moved to Bethlehem to live in a large house by myself. I hardly know the city and it’s surrounded by checkpoints and the Separation Barrier. I’ll have to go through a checkpoint to get to work in Jerusalem and back. But after seven years in Jerusalem, I’ve found the apartment of my dreams in a fascinating Palestinian city, in an old stone house with lots of windows, sunshine and hope. 

When my mother said that the checkpoints could close one day and I wouldn’t be able to visit them, I reassured her it wouldn’t happen. Because I write detailed reports for B’Tselem about roadblocks and closure of villages in the West Bank, I know it can happen, but I was trying to spare my mom the worry.

Well, on 9 March 2020, it happened. Occupation by virus

The health ministry directives sentenced me – and everyone else in Bethlehem – to fourteen days of isolation. I asked myself: “Closure? Why closure!? For a week now, the Israeli health ministry has been publishing its epidemiological investigations of patients inside Israel, but no one is closing their cities and communities!” It was a shock for me and for the residents of Bethlehem and the West Bank. Friends told me that in 2002, Bethlehem was put under full closure for 40 days and they’re supposedly used to it.

So, I started my new life. I worked from home. I got together with friends on video chat and talked to my family from afar to make up for missing them. All I could see, most of the time, was the world outside my window and sometimes in my imagination.

One day, when I went out to get supplies, I saw a man ringing the church bells at the top of the tower up ahead and the voice of the muezzin joined him from the mosque nearby. I walked to my car through the empty city. It was raining. In my head, I was writing the script for an apocalypse.

The fourteen days of isolation are over, but new developments have put the whole country in isolation. I had to decide whether to stay in Bethlehem alone until God knows when, or try to go back to my parents, despite the closure and roadblocks

I packed a suitcase, started the car and went back to my parents. 

Marwa Ghannam, B’Tselem data coordinator

The window in my room overlooks a prison. They say the converted building used to be owned by a collaborator with Israel. I look at it and wonder: Could we all be living in one great illusion? In one big prison?
I got to know Wadi a-T’aamrah, the neighborhood across from me, pretty well
Framing the lockdown...
Fares Abu Jabal, 26, single, bar/pub owner from Bethlehem: I feel like we’re living in a nightmare that never ends. I was used to going to the pub every day, working and meeting different people – tourists and locals. Now the pub is closed and no one is visiting.
This is when Ben came into my life. Ben was my Scottish neighbor’s cat. He went back home when everything here shut down. Without Ben, I wouldn’t have been able to get through this tough time, the days seem to never end, the emptiness, the loneliness.
Hamdi al-Hrub, 29, single, a butcher shop owner from Wadi Fukin: I’ve been working for a few months now at the butcher shop my brother and I opened in the area between al-Khader and Beit Jala. We didn’t get a chance to enjoy the money we were making, or the work itself, before we had to shut down. At first we could still drive from our village, Wadi Fukin, towards al-Khader and Bethlehem, but we can’t anymore.
There are checkpoints everywhere and we need special permission from the Palestinian police to leave. I’ve given up and for now, am staying home. My brother sometimes goes to the butcher shop because he has a permit, but even when we open, people don’t come. Everyone’s home and afraid to go out. It’s depressing and there’s no energy for anything anymore.
Shadi Ramadan, 25, single, from a-Duheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem: The whole world is under closure now. Could everyone be feeling what the Palestinian people, who are used to closure, usually feel? I left the house today for the first time in seven days. All the entrances to the city have been closed off by the Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority. There are no people. There are no birds, even.
As refugees expelled from their homes in 1948, we are known for clinging to the land and for farming. Maybe that’s why I started a greenhouse on my roof. It’s helping me get rid of the negative feelings caused by news about the virus. Maybe I can plant enough vegetables to meet my family’s needs during this crazy time.
The coronavirus is a new friend. Something about it symbolizes a shared fate. The virus is much stronger than the occupation, and it’s affecting the Israelis and us in the same way. Death doesn’t differentiate between them and us. But at night, a terrible feeling worms its way into my heart: What about the family’s financial situation!? If this goes on for a long time – what will we do? Where are we going to get money for our necessities? Will I be able to go back to work? I looked for work for six months and on my first day, the corona showed up in town. Such bad luck!

Eyes Wide Open Photo Blog by B’Tselem is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You are free to use the photos in the blog. However, any public use of photos must include copyright credit to the photographer and B’Tselem.