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‘Worse than the Intifada’: Arab merchants at Old City shuk hit ‘rock bottom’

Summer in Jerusalem’s Old City normally sees thousands of tourists from around the world crowding through narrow alleyways, past an endless row of storefronts, to tour the city’s holy sites.

With the coronavirus pandemic in full force, the airport closed to tourists and the country careening towards lockdown, however, the Old City is now a very different place. Save for the Old City’s Arab merchants, several police officers, and the occasional Jewish Israeli passerby, the streets were more or less deserted this week.

The vast majority of shops – normally filled with storekeepers selling goods which range from the questionable to the genuinely valuable – remain boarded up. Old Jerusalem’s Arab merchants, many of whom pay high rents for the Old City’s lucrative real estate, depend on tourism for their livelihood.

“Normally, we open our shops at 8 and it’s like the whole world’s outside,” Abu Mohammad al-Ajrami, a member of the Jerusalem Merchants’ Committee, said wistfully. “Twelve hours later, by 8 pm, sometimes it’s still packed outside — but we close.”

This long, hard summer spent in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, however, is very different for Abu Mohammad, who has sold jewelry and other goods in the Old City for over 40 years. Ben Gurion International Airport was closed to foreign nationals in mid-March to prevent the spread of the virus; the government recently announced that it will remain closed until at least September.

“By March 15, everything had totally shut down. Even today, we’re basically still locked down,” Abu Mohammad said, gesturing at the alleyway of padlocked storefronts outside.

Sitting across from him in his store is Saleh al-Shawiri, who is also struggling to make ends meet in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re dying out here,” al-Shawiri, who owns a restaurant in the Old City, told The Times of Israel. “Every day, I used to bring in $3,000. Now I get $50.”

Abu Mohammad said he even doesn’t even bother to open his shop most days.

“You caught me on a day when I showed up. We come here and open our shops to let in a little fresh air, nothing more,” Abu Mohammad said.

Jerusalem’s Old City have seen crises which deterred tourists before. Decades of wars, intifadas and waves of Palestinian terror attacks left the Old City reeling and cut into the merchants’ livelihoods.

But Arab shopkeepers in the area have never seen an economic crisis like this, East Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce director Mazen al-Qaq said. Al-Qaq’s family has owned a restaurant in the Old City since 1969.

“During the First and Second Intifada, we could still open our shops. There was still money to be made, and tourists arriving. Sure, there were explosions and bombings, and we were impacted by that – but nothing like the economic damage we’re seeing today,” Al-Qaq said.

Unfair treatment

Abd al-Salaam, a spice merchant, told The Times of Israel that the police were cracking down extremely hard on coronavirus health violations in the area. Even his mask was lowered even slightly, he said, police would come and fine him hundreds of shekels.

“It’s not just because of coronavirus. It’s because we live here in the Old City. On Saturday, for example, there was an extremely intense security presence here, they closed everything in the Old City. But if I were to go to Tel Aviv, for example, the situation there is close to normal,” Abd al-Salaam said.

“Everywhere in this place is sensitive, I know. But I go to West Jerusalem and see people going around normally, like there’s no coronavirus, without consequences. If you’re going to lock somewhere down, close everyone down equally. If you close some areas and not other areas, it almost seems like we’re being targeted, like there’s racial discrimination,” he continued.

Israeli Police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld denied that either the Old City or Palestinians were being singled out, saying that the operations were part of a general increase in police across the Jerusalem area to enforce the government’s coronavirus restrictions.

“Over the last few weeks, there’s been a tremendous increase in the numbers [of cases] across the general public and police activities have expanded in public areas, including the Old City,” Rosenfeld said.

“Police activities take place with equal measures in all communities both Jewish, Muslim and Christian,” he added.

Rosenfeld did not comment directly on what Old City merchants alleged was the police closing their shops on Saturday, even as restaurants and coffee shops remained open elsewhere.

Debts and loans

Multiple merchants independently told The Times of Israel that financial problems had led some families in the Old City to divorce, with couples splitting apart over the inability of the breadwinner to feed his wife and children.

Asked how he was supporting himself during the pandemic, Abu Mohammad said his adult children were paying his debts. Other merchants said they were drawing on their savings or taking out loans.

Most Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are neither Israeli or Palestinian citizens. Instead, they carry a temporary Jerusalem residency card issued by Israel; unlike citizenship, their residency can be revoked.

Their residency card entitles them to compensation from the National Insurance Institute, which plays a key role in identifying whether or not they are eligible for benefits. Rights groups have argued for years, however, that East Jerusalem Palestinians have not received their due from the National Insurance Institute.

In 2019, Israeli State Comptroller reported that the National Insurance Institute’s data systems were so tangled that retrieving complete information about East Jerusalem residents’ individual cases at the Institute was nearly impossible. East Jerusalemites wishing to receive benefits or understand why their residency had been revoked, the report concluded, faced a byzantine system with little transparency.

Some merchants said that they hadn’t yet seen money from National Insurance, even though they said they paid into the fund like everyone else. Chamber of Commerce director Al-Qaq agreed that many merchants had told him they weren’t receiving what he said the National Insurance Institute had promised.

“They place all kinds of conditions on you. They told me – you own a shop, you’re not poor, you’re rich,” claimed Faysal, another Old City shopkeeper.

Abd al-Salaam said that he had not applied for National Insurance. He did not have a bank account, he said, and wasn’t sure how to get payments without one.

“Everyone needs support, but of the people I know here who applied for National Insurance, some got it and some didn’t. Those who got it spent it immediately covering their mounting debts and interest,” he said.

Others found the compensation too small to make a significant difference in their financial situation.

“There’s compensation from National Insurance, but it doesn’t actually make up our losses,” Abu Mohammad said.

The National Insurance Institute could not be reached for comment.

We’re like bastard children, unwanted by the Palestinian Authority and unwanted by Israel

Merchants said that they had received little support from the Palestinian Authority, either, which Israel has banned from operating within the boundaries of Jerusalem. As such, a stimulus fund for workers and businesses directed by the Palestinian Authority, known as the “Dignified Stand” program, does not seem to have reached Palestinians in Israeli-controlled East Jerusalem.

“We’re like bastard children, unwanted by the Palestinian Authority and unwanted by Israel,” Faysal said.

The PA sent ‘two cartons of gloves, two cartons of masks, two gallons of detergent. Added up – maybe two hundred shekels’

After giving the matter some thought, Abd al-Salaam, the spice merchant, recalled that the PA had in fact sent some aid to beleaguered Old City shopkeepers: “two cartons of gloves, two cartons of masks, two gallons of detergent. Added up – maybe two hundred shekels.”

Some shop owners have left Jerusalem to seek employment elsewhere, anything that could help them pay off their yearly rent, Abu Mohammad said.

Other shopkeepers, however, said that they were determined to stay in the Old City for as long as they could.

“Despite it all, we’re here, samideen,” shopkeeper Khalil said, using an Arabic word meaning to persevere through harsh adversity. The word has a strong resonance for Palestinians, referring to what they call their intention to remain on their land, come what may.

“Samideen?” Faysal remarked from across the street. “Of course we’re persevering and all that. But we also want to live.”

“This is rock bottom. We’re living on scraps,” he continued, gesturing at the empty alleyways to either side. “If things continue like this, only God knows what will happen.”

Header: An alley of the Old City inside Jerusalem

Original: Aaron Boxerman – TOI