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Israeli restrictions and escalating violence threaten to turn Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter into a ghost town

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Green metal panels shutter recently out of business storefronts along al-Wad Street, a narrow stone road inside of Jerusalem’s Old City walls that links Damascus Gate to the holy sites of the Western Wall and the al-Aqsa mosque. During the summer foot traffic was heavy on this Muslim Quarter walkway lined with souvenir mongers and restaurants. Yet six stores on al-Wad street alone have closed since October when violence erupted across Israel and the West Bank in what many Palestinians are calling the start of an uprising or “Intifada.”

The famed “best hummus joint in Jerusalem,” Abu Shukri’s, has taken to half-days. Mohamed Abu Hilmi, a scarf salesman dressed like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat who was known for wearing the iconic black and white Arabic shawl, took out a loan after the loss of Jewish-Israeli customers who no longer venture into Palestinian sections of the Old City.  Even more business may shut their doors in the coming weeks, threatening to turn the Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter into a ghost town.

“Palestinians are afraid to come and the tourists, if they come they don’t stop and they don’t talk to us,” said Jihad Rajabi who owns a t-shirt and souvenir store on al-Wad street. When Israeli police set up more than a dozen new checkpoints inside of East Jerusalem neighborhoods last October, Rajabi lost many customers. Increased Friday clashes inside of the Old City walls have also kept shoppers away and Israeli police have set up barricades at times forbidding non-residents from entering the area.

While sales have declined steadily over the past five years with expected long lulls in the winter months, Rajabi has managed to stay out of the red until this year. Now he moonlights as a driver on construction sites to cover the bills for his store.

“I work in the mornings from 7am to 2pm driving the truck,” said Rajabi after a meeting of the Old City’s Palestinians souvenir shop association and representatives of the Palestinian Authority. Dozens of business owners brainstormed Tuesday on ways to meet their expenses. Shopkeepers said the government officials proposed bringing in clowns to attract customers. The store owners requested cash disbursements instead.

A spokesperson from the Jerusalem governorate declined to comment on the substance of the Tuesday conversation, but confirmed government officials have been in communication with business owners.

The fine print of the Oslo Accords prohibits the West Bank-based Palestinian government from giving services to Jerusalemites. Accepting funds from the Palestinian Authority could open store keepers to Israeli prosecution, but many Palestinian business owners are desperate enough for the risk.

The Palestinian Jerusalem chamber of commerce, a private enterprise that works with business in the Old City, solicited grants from international organizations, but the director-general Fadi al-Hidmi said Old City merchants do not qualify for many aid projects geared towards Palestinians because Jerusalem is not considered underdeveloped.

Al-Hidmi’s group is keeping tabs on the sharp decease of consumerism in East Jerusalem over past four months. “We used to have 40 hotels, now today we have 20 hotels,” he said. In recent weeks tour guides and Palestinian owned hotels in East Jerusalem reported to him an alarming 70-percent cancelation rate.

“The situation is deteriorating due to the current political situation,” said al-Hidni, “East Jerusalem historically, before the [1967] war and the checkpoints, it was connected to the Palestinian cities, and after the wall was constructed and after the checkpoints were put in place there was a separation.”

The Muslim quarter in particular has traditionally been one of the most bustling sections. It is the largest of the four districts in the Old City, and houses 28,000 of the 38,000 residents, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

As a result of the sudden drop in business, Old City’s shopkeepers are left to find solutions on their own.

Alaa al-Din stands in front of his clothing stand in Jerusalem's Old City. (Photo: Allison Deger)

Alaa al-Din stands in front of his clothing stand in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Photo: Allison Deger)

“My neighbor next door is closing his store, he can’t pay the rent,” said Ayman al-Jabari, another souvenir store owner in the Old City. Al-Jabari calculated his net income for Tuesday day was just under $4, after buying lunch and an afternoon coffee.

“I will try my best to stay open. I planned to close this store this year, but I sold my car for a cheaper one,” said al-Jabari who used to drive a $7,500 Mazda, now he has a $1,300 Subaru and a small reserve to keep his shop in operation.

Walking up al-Wad street towards the Damascus Gate al-Jabari said customers stopped frequenting his store after a Palestinian university student Mohanad Halabi killed two Israelis some 20 yards from Rajabi’s shop on al-Wad street in early October. Al-Jabari heard the gunshots, but felt it was impossible to intervene out of fear for his own life. “Even if it was a Jewish person stabbing a Palestinian, you can’t go and help,” said al-Jabari, “Halabi had a gun and he was shooting.”

Just before carrying out the attack Halabi posted on social media that a “third Initfada has started.” Indeed Halabi’s act did mark to the beginning of a series of uncoordinated attacks by Palestinians on Israelis that have continued to date with no signs of letting up according to reports by Israeli intelligence sources and analysts. Since October Palestinians have killed more than 20 Israelis, and Israelis have killed more than 130 Palestinians–many in subsequent demonstrations in the West Bank over the upheaval in Jerusalem.

Yet for Palestinian business owners near the site of that first attack, the prospect of violence has kept tourist groups away.

In this same four-month period Israeli restrictions of movement in Palestinian neighborhoods increased. Fifteen new checkpoints were initially erected inside of East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Some has since been removed, but rolling police street searches have kept Palestinian shoppers from the Old City.

These increased patrols inside of the Old City has further strapped al-Jabari’s finances. Recent visits from the fire department, building inspectors and regular police have cost him more than $1000 in fines. One ticket was for smoking in front of his store. Al-Jabari explained his exhale blew inside of his shop and he was ticketed for smoking indoors. “It’s a revenge,” said al-Jabari.

About Allison Deger

Allison Deger is the Assistant Editor of Follow her on twitter at @allissoncd.

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9 Responses

  1. rugal_b
    January 20, 2016, 2:44 pm

    It makes me sick seeing what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians. They are a turning into a pure force of hatred, no longer human than can be reasoned with, due to decades of unopposed, free reign to act out their mental illnesses onto the Palestinians. What makes it even worse is, the victims are the better people than many of us. We are seeing honest to God good people being killed, being made homeless, being tortured all for what? Anti-Arab racism, conjured to make sense of their nonsensical Zionist religion?

    If Israel was a person, he would’ve been long locked up in a mental facility or even euthanized for his sad state of mind. The US, UK, and all other Western nations who supported this psychotic nation, enabling its reign of terror, are every bit as complicit and have as much blood on their hands as Israel.

    • upsondundas
      January 21, 2016, 2:19 pm

      I totally agree I am ashamed that my Country props up this fascist regime that even dig’s up and uses the emergency powers (Set up by the British) from the 40/50’s to demolish people’s homes How come that if it was any other group of people who were doing this there would be a world outcry….. but because they are Jews everything they do is OK they make the Palestinians pay for the Holocaust every single day … Then they stand at that wall every Friday night and pray for a Temple! you would have thought that by now they would have realized why they haven’t been worthy to have one for two thousand years and the one’s they had before they desecrated them and made them into dens of iniquity…. I suppose that the Israelis are a victim of their own success, you Know murder them, contain them,deny them, castrate them, imprison them,deny them free agency, and how would you expect people to react ? exactly ! just like they did with the Roman occupation the French Maquis with the Nazis the Yanks with their war of Independence the Haganah with their own box of dirty tricks.It’s just that everyone else is not allowed to fight back apart from them …. The occupied areas are becoming Israel’s Vietnam! What is sad is that with the emergence of radical Muslims people tar them with the same brush but don’t forget some of the Palestinians are Christians people sometimes forget that don’t they. I am surprised that the Israelis allow any one in because then people realize what is going on there. [..] keep on trucking!! Jonathan from England

  2. Kathleen
    January 20, 2016, 8:36 pm

    Allison thanks for this report. The tension in the report is palpable. So depressing. The whole area is a tinder box. U.S. actions in the region have made everything so much worse

  3. Kay24
    January 20, 2016, 9:41 pm

    The US (with the eager support of Israel) has been playing God in the Middle East. We decide who their leaders should be, whether or not there should be democracy (not in Saudi Arabia of course), and who must be trained and armed, to fight those we don’t like. Things always gets WORSE when we are involved. Have we got rid of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Al Qaeda still thrives in some nations, and we cannot stop ISIS. You do not have to look hard to find that the US has always been involved in some devious form, to empower these dangerous groups. We have wasted trillions of dollars destabilizing, provoking, and poking hornets nests, knowing the ME only needed a singe match to make that huge bonfire. Some Americans still seem amazed we are hated.

    Israel will remain protected, defended, armed, aided, and untouched, whatever happens around it, and their illegal occupation, settlements, and continued massacres of Palestinians, will be ignored. We are complicit in Israel’s crimes, but look over there at those violent Arab nations…

    • italian ex-pat
      January 21, 2016, 11:13 am

      @ Kay24

      ” . . . but look over there at those violent Arab nations . . .”

      That (along with “we gave them Gaza and look how they thanked us” and the ever popular “they were offered a state and turned it down”) has got to be the lamest, and most used and abused defense for Israel’s crimes offered by the pro-Zionist readership in the NYT.

      As a digital subscriber, I read all articles pertaining to the I/P issue, and what I find more telling than the articles are the readers’ comments. By now I know all the Israel-firsters by name/moniker, so I can guess what their comments are going to be even prior to reading them. And you bet that “look at the atrocities the Arab/Muslim countries are committing, why are you singling out Israel as the villain?” comes up all the time. Like saying a child abuser is not as bad as a mass-murderer.

      I stopped posting replies a long time ago, one might as well try to argue with a mechanical robot. Still, sometimes I feel like screaming in frustration and anger, you know?

      • Kay24
        January 21, 2016, 12:06 pm

        I know what you mean. These are now familiar language used by the hasbara brigade. I stopped posting comments on Huffpost long time ago, because hateful has brats were allowed to make vile comments, personal attacks, and the zionist lies seem to go unchecked. The I/P situation is hopeless, and it is disappointing that people we vote for are supporting one of the evil nations in the world. Despite the shekels poured into training these zionist gnats, Israel is still one of the more disliked nations in the world. In fact more and more people are beginning to realize that.
        It seems the has brats are not doing their job so well. They are annoying yes, but not able to shift world opinion.

  4. JLewisDickerson
    January 20, 2016, 11:34 pm

    RE: “Israeli restrictions and escalating violence threaten to turn Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter into a ghost town

    MY COMMENT: À la Hebron! (i.e., a ghost town, à la Hebron)

  5. olive52
    January 21, 2016, 9:33 am

    A sad consequence to the Old City stabbings. The Suq is a fun place to shop for souveniers and to walk through. Its always been a microcosm of coexistance and if you ask any business owner there, Jewish, Muslim or CHristian, Im sure they would choose peaceful coexistance with their fellow business owners. Hopefully this violent atmosphere will die down.

    • eljay
      January 21, 2016, 9:51 am

      || olive52: A sad consequence to the Old City stabbings. … ||

      A sad consequence of the on-going occupation and colonization of the Free City of Jerusalem by Israel.

      || … The Suq is a fun place to shop for souveniers and to walk through. Its always been a microcosm of coexistance and if you ask any business owner there, Jewish, Muslim or CHristian, Im sure they would choose peaceful coexistance with their fellow business owners. … ||

      A one-state solution, with equality and peaceful coexistence for everyone – fair enough.

      || … Hopefully this violent atmosphere will die down. ||

      Hopefully Israel will end its on-going occupation and colonization of Jerusalem.

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