Occupied West Bank’s economy crashes to a halt as war drags on

Businesses are struggling to stay open as continuing Israel-Gaza conflict takes its toll

Palestinians queue for hours at checkpoint outside of Jericho. Willy Lowry / The National
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An eerie quiet has replaced the squeals of joy that usually emanate from Safari Aquapark in Jericho.

The water park has been forced to close indefinitely since Israel declared war on Gaza, following an attack by the militant group Hamas on October 7 when teams of Hamas members flooded into southern Israel and killed at least 1,400 people.

The twisting slides sit empty as a handful of mechanics busy themselves with maintenance projects. The park normally employs 60 people but that has been reduced to four since the latest chapter in the decades-long conflict kicked off.

The park was scheduled to shut for winter on November 20. The weeks following the outbreak of war should have been some of the park’s busiest. The summer heat, which is particularly intense in Jericho, has finally abated and visitors from the West Bank, Israel and abroad would normally be using the temperate October temperatures to enjoy the park’s end of season.

More than two million foreign tourists visited Jericho in 2022. The city has become something of a rival to West Bank pilgrimage and tourism city Bethlehem in recent years.

Jericho, which is believed to be one of the oldest inhabited places on earth, is home to a newly declared Unesco world heritage site at Tell es Sultan and a host of other tourist attractions.

October is typically the high season for tourism in the area, but business evaporated overnight after Hamas’s attack.

“This is a disaster for the economy,” Muhammed, a mechanic at the water park says. “People can’t even get into the city because of Israeli roadblocks – thank God I live slightly outside in the countryside.”

The park is so quiet that the employees can just shout across the expansive pools at each other from opposite ends. There is no need for radios, once used at peak times.

Outskirts empty

The first pool by the entrance is still full of cold blue water, but the further into the park you go the more stagnant the facilities start to look.

“Everyone’s attention is on Gaza at the moment, and rightfully so,” Muhammed says. He does fear the violence that has erupted in Jericho recently, although does not consider it much worse than what happened before October 7.

“The problem here is the effect on tourism.”

The outskirts of the ancient city are nearly empty, but life still persists in the centre of town, though it’s clear only residents are milling around. Banks and corner shops are still hives of activity but souvenir shops are void and only a handful of restaurants are open.

At Abu Firas, a sprawling restaurant, only a handful of customers popped in for a takeaway.

It was the much larger room at the back that betrayed the restaurant’s dire financial situation.

There was space for 200 people, spread across two floors decked out in ornate wallpaper. At the back, a children’s play area kitted out with slides had been packed up.

“We’re 70 per cent down on what we normally make at this time of year,” Firas Yousaf, the manager, says. A few energetic young staff in black bandannas flitted past the downbeat 38-year-old. “At least we’re still open,” he said with a sigh. “The restaurants that rely only on tourists have closed entirely.”

A few kilometres away from Abu Firas sits Qasr Al Nakhil, a newly opened luxury resort, with a sparkling pool and views of sand swept mountains and palm groves, that rival some of the Middle East's most sought after hotels.

The resort, which was fully booked through October, reported its occupancy rate had plummeted to zero within hours of the war.

In the days following October 7, Israel has effectively shut the occupied West Bank off from the world, barring Palestinians from leaving and making it very difficult for others to travel.

“You see if anyone wants to come from outside of Jericho, they have to stop for at least two hours at the checkpoint and leaving is the same problem,” says Fadi Abd Alaziz, general manager of Qasr Al Nakhil.

Mr Alaziz says the hotel’s 70 employees have stopped coming to work because there are no guests to cater to.

The hotel, which is still paying employees for October and November, has already lost around $245,000.

Like so many businesses in the West Bank, Mr Alaziz is not sure how long the hotel can hang on, but he knows he will do everything he can to keep it running, even amid the prospect of an increasingly violent and dangerous conflict, the ramifications of which are dire for all Palestinians, not just those in Gaza.

In the West Bank, 91 Palestinians have been killed in the last two weeks. On Sunday, Israel launched an air attack on Jenin, which struck the Al Ansar Mosque.

The Israeli air force said it struck Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad members, who had been planning an imminent attack. The increased violence in the West Bank has some fearing that it could become a second front in the war.

Updated: October 24, 2023, 4:41 AM