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.

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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… Read more »

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

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… Read more »

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)

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.