'We feel like we are dying from the inside'

Israel-Gaza war fears turn Jerusalem into ‘ghost town’

Stores close, schools shutter and streets empty in capital as shocked Israelis grapple with devastating terror onslaught

Israeli police cars patrol a main street in downtown Jerusalem as people stay in their home, on October 9, 2023. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
Israeli police cars patrol a main street in downtown Jerusalem as people stay in their home, on October 9, 2023. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

AFP — The usually bustling streets of Jerusalem were eerily quiet on Monday as deadly fighting between Israel and Palestinian terrorists raged for a third day in and around the Gaza Strip after Hamas massacred hundreds of Israelis in a surprise mass infiltration.

In the city’s west, Israeli pensioner Sara, 70, was sitting on a bench after her morning walk along the city’s normally busy main roads that were now almost deserted.

“I did not see many people in the streets, but it’s natural, it’s war,” she said. “We are all worried… those who have someone in the army are very anxious.”

The atmosphere around the city “reminds me of 1973,” when Arab armies attacked Israel in a war that scarred the nation, she said.

At the First Station commercial center, which was full of people just days ago during the holiday of Sukkot, businesses had ground to a halt, with the vast majority of storefronts showing “closed” signs.

The school week has not started in either the city’s east or west since violence broke out early Saturday with the Hamas attack targeting southern Israel, accompanied by rocket fire raining down on much of the country.

Since then, some 900 people have been killed in Israel and 560 in the Gaza Strip, according to official figures.

“We feel like we are dying from the inside,” said Itamar Taragan, manager of the First Station compound, which he said would reopen “not tomorrow and not after tomorrow.”

Some “open their restaurants only to cook for soldiers, firefighters, things like this,” he told AFP.

“It’s hard to breathe,” said Taragan. “People are watching TV all day, looking at… videos of the people who were abducted, and even if it’s not your children, you’re in shock.”

Pamela Auerbach and Jane Medved stepped out of one of the few open shops, an organic supermarket, onto a “quiet” city, said Auerbach, 56, a lawyer who splits her time between Israel and the United States.

She said she saw many young people offering help to families distressed by the war.

Isreali security forces inspect damage on a building in the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh outside Jerusalem, after a rocket attack from Gaza on October 9, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

For Medved, a 67-year-old university professor, “people are busy, that’s all. Busy working from home. Busy organizing the help” for displaced or wounded Israelis and soldiers.

Tourists can still be seen around the city but in smaller numbers. Several of them interviewed by AFP were concerned they may not be able to leave the country by air.

Jason Lyons, visiting from the United States, said videos he saw on social media showing the horrors of the fighting were “very demoralizing”.

The 54-year-old, smoking a cigar in front of the five-star hotel he has stayed at for several weeks, said he had felt a change in the mood on the street.

His friend, 60-year-old Murray Huberfeld who works in finance in New York, had a similar observation, but as he began speaking to AFP a rocket alert blared through Jerusalem, sending the few people outside rushing into shelters.

Palestinians take a kidnapped Israeli civilian, center, from the Kfar Aza kibbutz into the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. (Hatem Ali/AP)

“Jerusalem is indeed a ghost town,” said May Bahbah, a Palestinian resident of Jerusalem in her 40s.

“People are in fear and worried,” she told AFP, standing next to a shuttered greengrocer.

Palestinians living in the city’s east “have to go to their jobs but they are worried they might be abused” by Israeli forces “because of the war situation,” said Bahbah.

Near Khan al-Zait, the Old City’s main market, few shops had opened on Monday.

Hazem, 42, who did not wish to disclose his full name, came from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan to run some errands and was visibly angry.

“The police officers asked me to get out of the car, and they searched it and found an electrical outlet tester,” he told AFP. “One of them slapped me so hard, and when they wanted to attack me, an Arab officer stopped them.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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