In nazareths old town, posters plastered on shuttered storefronts depict a flatlining red graph and the words no tourism, no life. six months into the pandemic israels largest arab city a beacon for christian pilgrimage from across the globe is struggling as visitor numbers plummet.
Pilgrims and tourists eager to visit the place where jesus spent his childhood are the economic lifeblood of nazareth. but as visitor revenue drains away, the galilean town, unlike other tourist hotspots, is yet to receive any financial assistance from the israeli government.
Prime minister benjamin netanyahu nicknamed mr economy for his management of the countrys coffers as finance minister in the early 2000s has been criticised for mishandling the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis. half a year into the crisis, hundreds of thousands remain out of work, the self employed have received little assistance and new cases of covid-19 continue to climb.
Israel remains a red-listed country off-limits to most international travel for the foreseeable future which bodes ill for its large tourism industry. and in the face of a spiralling infection rate, one of the worlds highest per capita, the country started its second, three-week nationwide lockdown on friday.
Daphna aviram-nitzan, director of the centre for governance and the economy at the israel democracy institute think-tank, said the governments confused, unfocused and too indecisive handling of the crisis led to a succession of mistakes made that in the end cost far more.
If [the government] had put up the money immediately, and focused it on populations that had been hurt, and adopted a german model of partial employment, she said, we would have unequivocally found ourselves with fewer businesses collapsing and fewer unemployed.
Among those hardest hit are the palestinian citizens of israel, who complain their towns have not received the help given to other tourist centres. the red sea resort of eilat and the city of tiberias on the sea of galilee were handed roughly $15m each in government support in june. but nazareths municipality has yet to see a shekel in government aid.
According to the most recent figures from israels tourist ministry, around 1.3m people visited nazareth in 2018, drawn to its historic churches and religious sites and generating about $74m in revenue. but since mid-march, the numbers have collapsed to virtually zero.
Salim ghumeid, an aide to nazareths mayor, said unemployment in the city of almost 80,000 peaked at more than 40 per cent at the height of the crisis. it has now settled at around 28 per cent about seven points higher than the national average.
After the outbreak of the crisis, it has become a dead city as far as tourists, said morsi hija, a local tour guide. israeli tourists arrive in dribs and drabs, he said, but the absence of foreign visitors is devastating. he said tour guides and other businesses dependent on the tourism industry had to sit at home and wait, and hope, and pray.
The failure to provide nazareth with the help other tourist-dependent cities have received has led to accusations that the government is discriminating against israels palestinian minority.
Its the continuation of discriminatory policy against arab society in general, and during this crisis in particular, said sondos saleh, a former teacher from nazareth who became a first-term member of the knesset for the arab taal party after this years elections. she said the lack of assistance for her home town was an example for how arab towns are neglected by the authorities and ministries.
Pini shani, a senior tourism ministry official, said that unlike eilat and tiberias, nazareth does have other industries, and that was a major consideration in delivering aid to the municipalities. he estimated that 80-90 per cent of the economies of eilat and tiberias were directly dependent on tourism, compared to roughly 60 per cent in nazareth.
We didnt ignore it, and a great effort was made to help there, too, beyond assistance to national plans for aid to business owners, mr shani said. the aspiration is for nazareth to receive also.
Under pressure from nazareths mayor and arab members of the knesset, yisrael katz, the israeli finance minister, pledged in july to seek government approval for a roughly $9m aid package for nazareth. this has yet to happen. the prime ministers office did not respond to a request for a comment.
For many of israels palestinian citizens, the governments failure to help nazareth is part of entrenched discrimination.
Ive been able to tell whether im in a jewish or arab town since i was four, just by looking at the streets, the investment, the parks, ms saleh said. because the government isnt accustomed to passing a decision for only an arab city, theyve added investment in other towns in the north.
Walking past the mostly shuttered shops in nazareths meandering souk, ms saleh said the lack of aid was just one example of what she described as the israeli governments systemic discrimination and racism against the countrys palestinian minority, especially when it comes to funding.
Why is it that whenever it wants, the government talks about nazareth being the number one or two city in the country for international tourism, said sami jabali, owner of the liwan coffee shop in nazareths old town. but when theres a problem they give only to tiberias and eilat?