Shortly before Donald Trump’s historic visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, the first for a sitting US president, the normally bustling stone alleyways stood deserted and silent, a strange sight for midday on a Monday. From early morning, the only people treading the ancient stones were a few confused tourists, bored shop owners, and hundreds of Israeli police and army forces.
More than 10,000 police officers are taking part in the two-day operation to secure places that Trump will visit, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall in the Old City, according to Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld.
Trump will proceed by foot from Jaffa Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and will then head to the Western Wall, requiring police to completely shut down major arteries in the Old City, including the market in the Christian Quarter and the Jaffa Gate entrance, along with side streets leading to the places where Trump and his entourage will walk.
In addition to the security measures that shut down most of the Old City, the Arab-Israeli Higher Follow-Up Committee called a general commercial in the West Bank and Israel for Monday, encouraging the shuttering of all Israeli Arab and Palestinian businesses in solidarity with prisoners hunger striking in Israeli jails.
Even stores in areas that were open to pedestrians, such as the Arab market leading to Damascus Gate, had their gates drawn close and locked, due to the strike and lack of foot traffic. A few tourists filed through the dead streets, their footsteps echoing in the quiet.
In areas where police had blocked off key streets that led to Trump’s route, helpful residents stood at intersections, warning tourists of dead ends around the twists and turns of the narrow alleys.
“Surely, they can’t close the entire Old City?” grumbled Simon Cobbs, who was visiting from Brighton, England, as he made another turn into a blind alley, blocked by police officers and a white sheet. “There’s no information, that’s the problem. The hotel said the Old City would be open but we’re just getting sent around from place to place.”
Local business owners and residents shrugged their shoulders at the disruption. “Every time anything happens, they close the area,” said Raffoul Rofa, a lawyer and the director of the Society of St. Yves, a Catholic human rights advocacy organization whose headquarters is located near Jaffa Gate. “The US president comes, they close the area; the marathon comes, they close the area; it’s Jerusalem Day, they close the area; there’s car racing or a festival, they close the area. Today, it’s more strict because of Trump, but it’s not new.”
Rofa and many other residents expressed hope that Trump could bring peace to the region. “The indicators for Trump were full-heartedly with Israel, but lately he’s been retracting,” he said. “But no one knows, he’s an unpredictable person.”
“When I heard Trump won the presidency, a lot of people didn’t like him, but I was happy because I really think he’ll make peace,” said Kabaja Walit, a retired resident of the Christian Quarter who used to work for the Tourism Ministry. “He has a lot of money in his pocket and when he comes here, he comes with his own mind and his own money.”
Trump supporters David and Leah Weissman trekked out to the Old City with their daughter, Arayl, 9, in hopes of shaking Trump’s hand during his visit, but turned back when they realized how difficult it would be to get anywhere near his route. “We were hoping to meet him and salute him,” said Leah Weissman.
“We wanted to tell him that we hope he will keep his promise to let Israel run itself,” said David Weissman, a veteran of the US Army who served two deployments in Afghanistan before moving to Israel with his family four years ago. “I hope he gains an understanding of the conflict here, it’s a religious conflict, not it’s not about land. People have a misconception the conflict here is just about land.”
As Leah Weissman struggled up the stone steps with her daughter’s wheelchair, she said she has fought to keep her daughter at home and out of an institution. She dismissed Trump’s previous track record on disabilities, including making fun of a New York Times reporter with a disability during the campaign, and said that Trump “is maturing and understanding more.”
Many residents of the Old City said they hadn’t followed Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, where he made a historic arms deal and gave a speech about radical Islam. “About Saudi Arabia, we didn’t really care,” said Maher, a resident of the Christian Quarter who asked that his last name be withheld because he had opened his shop during the strike.
“It was just a lot of blah blah blah,” he said while sitting in his convenience store with some neighbors (it was empty of customers). “We’re hoping for peace — that’s the only thing that can save us.”
Trump’s visit also thwarted Lory Zarfati’s hope to bring her family, in from Italy, to the Western Wall. Her son is getting married Tuesday in Jerusalem, a date they picked before Trump, she noted wryly. The groom is from Italy and the bride is from France, and 30 people flew in from each country for the wedding.
“It’s been a bit difficult to organize how the family is moving around,” she said. “We can’t go to the Western Wall, and it’s a shame the market is closed. But we are still happy, because Jerusalem is such a beautiful city and we have a wedding tomorrow.”