JERUSALEM (AP) – After an especially rainy winter, the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel has reached its highest level in two decades, but the beaches and major Christian sites along its banks are empty.
Tourism generally peaks in April, when Christians gather in sacred places over Easter and Israelis descend on beaches and in nearby national parks to enjoy the spring weather and see wild flowers bloom.
This year, this coincided with a blockade designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Borders have been closed and Israelis have been confined to their homes since mid-March.
Although the authorities recently began to loosen restrictions, they imposed a total blockade on Independence Day last week, preventing anyone from traveling more than 100 meters from home, except in an emergency.
This left the shores of the Sea of Galilee, locally known as Lake Kinneret, empty. Chairs and umbrellas were piled on beaches that, in previous years, were packed with families enjoying outdoor barbecues and watching fireworks.
"It is full of water and we are very excited," said Idan Greenbaum, head of the Vale do Jordão Regional Council. "Unfortunately, because of the virus, it is empty."
Christians believe that Jesus preached much of his preaching on the shores of the freshwater lake and even walked in its waters. Churches are built in places where he is believed to have miraculously multiplied bread and fish, and where he delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
For Israelis, the lake provides about 25% of the country's water and has long been seen as an indicator of national health, with newspapers publishing regular updates on the water level.
The northeastern shore of the lake borders the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war and then annexed. Access to the lake was an important point of contention in the peace negotiations with Syria, which collapsed in the 1990s. The United States recognized Israel's annexation last year, breaking with an international consensus that it is occupied territory.
The water level came close to the lowest level ever in April 2017, when it dropped to 212.95 meters below sea level. The current level is minus 208.92 meters (minus 685 feet).
This may not seem like much, but it transformed the landscape. The islands that appeared in recent years have disappeared and the dry vegetation along the coast is now submerged.
Haim Statyahu, general manager of tourism for Ein Gev, laments that there are no visitors to see him, but he is optimistic about the future. He says the groups are already making reservations for autumn and winter.
"We see light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "It won't be long, and we'll see the pilgrims coming back."
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