Reporter's notebook'A storm can come over Jerusalem at any moment, in any form'

All quiet on the eastern front? Jerusalem Old City sits empty — and heavily patrolled

So far, East Jerusalemites aren’t staging mass protests against the war following Hamas’s murderous onslaught, amid strict police measures and fears of jeopardizing social order

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A souvenir shop owner sits on a nearly empty street in Jerusalem's Old City, following a halt in the tourist influx due to the Israel-Hamas war, November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)
A souvenir shop owner sits on a nearly empty street in Jerusalem's Old City, following a halt in the tourist influx due to the Israel-Hamas war, November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

On any given day, the maze of alleys inside the Old City of Jerusalem is teeming with tourists, souvenir hawkers luring customers to their shops, and pilgrims of the three Abrahamic faiths on their way to visit their holy places.

However, since Hamas’s brutal onslaught in Israel and the outbreak of the war on October 7, the area inside and around the ancient walls has become eerily quiet.

The only exception to the wartime Old City hush is loud construction work outside Damascus Gate. The adjacent plaza — usually a flashpoint for demonstrations by Jerusalem’s Palestinians during times of conflict — has experienced a relative calm. Perhaps this is in part because the Damascus Gate entrance is surveilled by two police booths. Young Arab men who approach the gate are stopped for an ID check and searched. If they are not residents, many are not allowed to enter the Old City.

Nevertheless, temporary police controls have never prevented East Jerusalemites from rallying in the past, sometimes violently. Omar, a local 27-year-old nurse, said that today the circumstances of the conflict are different: “The war this time was started by the other side.”

“The events of October 7 were awful,” Omar continued. “And on a very large scale. Whole families of civilians were affected, children, young ravers, and also Arabs. It doesn’t feel like the usual round of skirmishes, but rather like an existential war,” he added.

Other residents, however, claim that the absence of demonstrations is due to police surveillance on a scale previously unknown.

Muhammad Abu Ali, owner of a barber shop in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, sitting outside his business, November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani/Times of Israel)

Wandering around the alleys of the old city, one is reminded of the eerie silence that reigned during the COVID lockdowns. Most nonessential businesses are closed, particularly those that cater to tourists such as souvenir shops and restaurants, but also those that serve Jerusalemites, since entrance into the Old City for nonresidents has been restricted.

Muhammad Abu Ali’s barber shop is one of the few businesses still open in the Muslim Quarter. Situated in an alley between Herod’s Gate and Damascus Gate, the salon sits empty most of the day. Its young owner, who lives next door, spends his days sitting outside by himself, smoking and chatting with friends on social media, waiting for the rare customer.

“Everyone here is depressed and afraid because of what is happening,” Abu Ali said. “Dozens of police officers pass through this alley at any time of the day now. If they see me smoking outside my home door after 6 p.m., they order me to go back inside.”

The police have been very heavy-handed in preventing protests, said Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher at the left-leaning Ir Amim nonprofit, which tracks government policy in East Jerusalem. The police did not respond to a request for comments on whether its policies changed after October 7.

Abu Ali reported that a friend and his sister were detained by the police for liking posts on social media. “We have to be careful whatever we say,” he added.

A young Palestinian man is searched by Israeli Border Police near Jaffa Gate, one of the points of entrance into the Old City of Jerusalem, November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)

Besides intensified prevention activities on the ground, security forces have also been active in countering support for terror over social media, questioning and detaining people who wrote or just “liked” social media posts backing Hamas.

Prominent Arab Israeli actress Maisa Abd Elhadi from Nazareth was arrested on October 24 and detained for a few days for allegedly praising the terror group’s attacks. On Thursday, four prominent Arab Israeli leaders were detained in Nazareth over planning a protest that police alleged could incite violence and threaten public order.

While some Jerusalem Palestinians may be cautious in expressing opinions for fear of legal persecution, not all are inhibited. A 60-year-old resident of the Muslim quarter who declined to provide his name said: “We are all with the resistance here,” referencing the terror group Hamas.

“You see what is happening in Europe — everyone is protesting for Palestine, nobody is on the side of Israel,” he added. Barring men under 50 from Al-Aqsa Mosque will not stifle protests, the man asserted.

Christian Arabs in the city are also concerned about the fallout of the conflict on the economy and tourism, particularly in the upcoming Christmas period. Hanna, the owner of a liquor store near Jaffa Gate in the Christian quarter, said that four restaurants on his street have closed since October 7, and several hotels have had to put their staff on furlough.

While the Christian quarter is not subject to the same level of police patrolling as the Muslim quarter, Hanna noted that public transportation to the Old City from surrounding Arab neighborhoods has been heavily reduced, and access roads are occasionally blocked, especially on Fridays, preventing nonresidents from reaching their places of work, study and worship.

Outside the walls of the historic core of Jerusalem, however, the situation is no different. Salah al-Din Street, the main business artery in East Jerusalem, is usually bustling with shoppers, food sellers and school students. Today it is as eerily quiet as the Old City.

The street witnessed a terror attack on November 6, in which Israeli-American Border Police officer Rose Elisheva Lubin was stabbed to death outside her police station.

“For the past two weeks, there has been almost nobody on this street. We, the shop owners, have just been sitting around,” said Hagop Sevan, the 57-year-old Armenian owner of a gift shop on Salah al-Din. Business owners in the area have gone on strike a couple of times since October 7, in tandem with a protest launched by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah in solidarity with Gaza.

Hagop Sevan posing at the entrance of his gift shop on Salah al-Din Street, East Jerusalem, on November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)

Sevan stressed the sensitive position of the Armenian community in the current conflict.

“We are caught between the two sides,” he said. “I sympathize with the Palestinians for what is happening in Gaza, but when I’m in Tel Aviv and talk to my Israeli friends, I cannot help but sympathize with them too.”

The shop owner mentioned that a couple of times since October 7, he saw a few local people gathered at one end of the shopping street in an attempt to stage a protest rally, but they were quickly dispersed by the police.

Tatarsky, the researcher, praised the “responsible” conduct of Jerusalemites on both sides in maintaining social peace. For example, he said, while Arabs have not staged violent protests, there have also been fewer cases of Jewish residents assaulting Palestinians compared to the previous war in May 2021.

In late October, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion urged senior rabbis to denounce the harassment of Arab workers in the city as a violation of the Torah, amid complaints that cleaning and maintenance services were neglected due to municipal workers’ fears of violence.

A security camera monitors the entrance to the Suq al-Attarin, once the street of spice traders inside the Old City of Jerusalem, November 6, 2023 (Gianluca Pacchiani / Times of Israel)

“Whenever there were violent demonstrations by Jerusalem Palestinians in the past, Israeli leaders would always attribute them to incitement by Hamas,” Tatarsky said.

“Right now, Hamas would love to set Jerusalem on fire,” he added. “East Jerusalemites came out to protest in the past when they were affected directly by Israeli actions — whether it was Jews trying to assert control over the Al-Aqsa compound, or evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah,” the flashpoint neighborhood where several expropriations have taken place in recent years following legal cases filed by right-wing Jewish groups.

“But today, Arab residents are showing restraint. Those accusations of acting upon Hamas incitement turned out to be false,” the researcher said.

A storm at any time

Samer Sinijlawi, a political activist from Sheikh Jarrah, said that the current circumstances cannot be compared to any past events. “Any expert in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict will tell you that there are two things you can never predict in this corner of the world: escalations, and peace when it wants to happen,” he said.

“The storm can come over the West Bank and Jerusalem at any moment, and in any form. What Hamas did on October 7 had a huge impact on Israelis, but what has happened in Gaza after October 7 had a huge impact on Palestinians, too.

“Whenever street reactions took place in Jerusalem in the past, they happened spontaneously, out of anger, without a leadership. Like a body with no head,” he added.

The Palestinian activist did not seem to be optimistic about the future. “I am not sure we will be able to coexist. The anger and hatred and sorrow and dehumanization of the other are getting stronger every day, on both sides.

“For the first time in my life, I don’t feel safe in my city because of the [Israeli] system. In the past, Palestinians in the city knew that if they were not involved in security-related events, they were safe from the police. Not anymore now. People can be arrested for a post on Facebook.”

In a bid to strengthen the sense of security among Jewish residents, on October 30 Lion along with  National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Police Chief Kobi Shabtai announced the formation of 10 armed volunteer civilian security teams counting 200 members, which will be patrolling various neighborhoods of the city. The plan is to train 33 such teams over the next weeks, with a total of 50 members, the mayor announced.

Graduates of a training course in Jerusalem for ten civilian security teams posing with their weapons – Sitting in the front row, from left to right: Jerusalem police chief Doron Turgeman, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (Israel Police website)

“Ben Gvir has his own militias now,” Sinijlawi said. “And Mayor Moshe Lion, in an election year, with a city made up by 40% of Palestinian residents with the right to vote, celebrates the fact that Ben Gvir distributes guns around the city. All they are doing is intimidating Arabs.”

Arab residents of Jerusalem mostly boycott the municipal elections, and are rarely considered a target electorate in candidates’ campaigns.

Sondos Alhoot, a Yesh Atid member and a candidate for Jerusalem city council in the ‘Kol Toshaveha’ slate in the 2023 municipal elections, March 9, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

However, in the upcoming election, which has been postponed to January 2024 due to the war, an Arab slate will run for city council for the first time, headed by teacher and social activist Sondos Alhoot.

Alhoot, a native of Nazareth who unlike most of Jerusalem’s Arab residents has Israeli citizenship, stressed that these are exceptionally difficult times.

“Jews and Arabs these days are afraid of each other — even to walk in each others’ neighborhoods,” she said.

“Even my close Jewish friends asked me why I am silent, if I condemn the October 7 attack,” she continued, saying that she was “shocked” to hear such requests from people she trusted. “In these times, I’m trying hard to preserve my sanity.”

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