JERUSALEM — In an effort to contain the highly contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, the Israeli authorities have barred most international travelers from entering Israel or the West Bank until at least the end of December, leaving holy sites in Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Old City of Jerusalem devoid of foreign visitors for a second Christmas.
But those who depend on tourism or whose relatives are unable to visit have been frustrated by the Israeli government, which they have accused of inconsistency, and even discrimination, in applying travel restrictions. The government allowed entry to international beauty pageant contestants and young Jews on trips meant to strengthen their ties to Israel — while barring Christian pilgrims.
Israel had largely barred foreign visitors since the pandemic first hit in March 2020, and had only begun admitting fully vaccinated foreign tourists in early November. The gates abruptly closed again four weeks later with the emergence of Omicron.
More than 4.5 million foreigners visited Israel in 2019, a bumper year for tourism, and Christian pilgrims accounted for roughly a quarter of the total. But the figure plunged to a few hundred thousand in 2020, when both Israel and the occupied territories were hit with waves of coronavirus infections, and foreign visitors were mostly barred last Christmas.
With new restrictions imposed because of the Omicron surge this season, most shops in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City are shuttered for lack of business. Hotels in Jerusalem, Tiberias and Nazareth have far fewer guests than usual. And Bethlehem, venerated as the traditional birthplace of Jesus, is looking at another gloomy season.
Despite the complications of travel and economic hardship wrought by the virus, Wadie Abunassar, an adviser to church leaders in the Holy Land, said there had been hopes this year that up to 15,000 pilgrims would come for Christmas.
“For people in Bethlehem, that would have been important oxygen,” he said. “The community is suffering.”