As a second wave of COVID-19 ravages the West Bank, the bustling old markets of its largest cities have fallen silent. In Nablus, Hebron, Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem, worried shopkeepers keep their empty stores open, clinched in a merciless double-bind: only by staying open do they stand a chance of rebuilding business, yet every day they open their doors they hemorrhage money.
Yasser Subha, a dairy seller in the Old City of Nablus, has been working in his profession for decades. He’s never witnessed an economic crisis like this one. “The situation of my city is like a siege,” he says. “Movement is very limited, and fear that coronavirus infection will spread is everywhere.”
Ahmed Al-Shakhshir, a young man who owns a store selling cheese and olives, spoke of his hope “that life in Nablus will return to normal and that the voice of merchants and passers-by will break the forced silence of the city.”
Ahmed is not the only one. Sami Khamis is a larger-than-life presence in Bethlehem, which throngs with Christian tourists visiting the Church of the Nativity—in normal years. Having a coffee with Sami the kahwajji, or coffee seller, was almost a rite of passage for visitors to the city. But Sami’s voice, calling “tea… coffee” no longer reverberates down Church of Nativity Street as it once did. There are no tourists to hear it.
Close by, an old man sells miscellaneous items near the Church of Nativity. Every day, he sets up his kiosk but sells nothing. "This kiosk is the only hope I have left that the future has better days in store for me,” he says.
To stop trading is to give up, but when business is not closed, it is down. At the Haj Abu Osama Manna bakery in Nablus, they used to bake about five bags of flour per day. Now they don’t bake more than half or two-thirds of a bag. Five families depend on the bakery to survive.
The story is the same in Jerusalem’s Old City. Walid Ghneim, the young owner of a souvenir shop, says he “no longer remembers” what the market was like before the pandemic. “I open the shop only to ventilate it, because the movement is very little in general, and the tourist movement is non-existent,” he says. He hopes desperately that the situation will not extend beyond the end of the year.
Of course, bad business has bad consequences. Fathi al-Jabrini works as a food seller in the Old City of Hebron, next to Al Ibrahimi Mosque. Hajj Fathi says: “Every month, I have medication costs that reach 500 shekels, and now we do not earn more than 10 shekels because of the coronavirus.”
A return to some kind of normalcy will depend on Palestinian authorities getting the virus under control. According to an International Committee of the Red Cross survey of Palestinians, compliance with prevention measures in the West Bank is significantly lower than in Gaza and East Jerusalem. In June, 28% reported that they still weren’t wearing masks, 22% said they weren’t avoiding crowded places and 21% weren’t staying home when feeling sick.
Clearly, there is work to be done—before the markets of the West Bank return to the hustle and bustle that used to characterize them, and small businesspeople can sleep easy once again.