Arab sellers in Jerusalem’s Old City bemoan virus as ‘worse than war’

Arab sellers in Jerusalem’s Old City bemoan virus as ‘worse than war’

Shops and alleyways that should be bustling with tourists are empty; holy sites see just a trickle of faithful as outbreak-curbing restrictions flatten tourism industry

A Muslim woman makes her way past closed shops in a deserted alley, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)
A Muslim woman makes her way past closed shops in a deserted alley, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

Munib Abu Assab, a tour operator in Jerusalem’s Old City, has seen deserted streets before, but he said not even past military conflicts over the contested land compare to the impact of coronavirus.

The 56-year-old Palestinian has lived though the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the threat of Iraqi Scud missiles in the 1991 Gulf War and two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings.

So far 2020 “is the worst year I have had in my life,” said Assab, who currently spends most of his time canceling tours after Israel imposed tight travel restrictions on arrivals in the country to contain the pandemic.

Israel has 433 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and tens of thousands in self-quarantine. There have been at least another 44 in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank.

It has banned non-essential movement and ordered the closure of all leisure and entertainment venues within its territory. The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency in the West Bank and also imposed restrictions after the first cases were confirmed there, with a focus of incidents in the Bethlehem area.

Assab noted that business was, not surprisingly, low during the Second Intifada that engulfed Israel from 2000 to 2005, which included waves of Palestinian suicide bombings and deadly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces.

But he said that even then he had a day or two worth of income each week.

Now Jerusalem’s ancient alleyways, typically crammed with tourists visiting sacred sites or wandering through shops and markets, are all but empty.

“The crisis now is new,” he told AFP.

“We are killed with corona. We have zero percent income,” he added, warning that he may have to lay off two of his four employees.

Old City, ‘dead city’

More than three million people visit Jerusalem each year, most of whom pass through the walled Old City, which encloses sites holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Morning prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 16, 2020, with worshipers keeping away from each other over fears of the coronavirus outbreak. (Courtesy: The Western Wall Heritage Foundation)

Last year, Tzoghig Karakashian celebrated the 100th anniversary of her family’s ceramics shop in the Old City.

Speaking to AFP on Monday, before the ban on non-essential movement came into force, Karakashian said her employees had preferred to stay home to avoid contracting the virus.

But Karakashian, of Armenian origin, said she could not bring herself to close the store — not that staying open did much good.

“I haven’t seen a single customer today,” she said, sighing. “The Old City is a dead city. Why should they come? There is nothing to do.”

She said people were more afraid now than they were during the intifadas.

Those “were political,” she told AFP. “This is not political. Now it’s a health issue. That’s very different.”

Her brother Moses Aintablian, who owns a shop nearby, agreed that people were more fearful now than during the past conflicts.

“People are more scared of the virus. People know the war starts and will finish,” he said.

“But this one, nobody knows if it’s going to finish, or get worse, nobody knows.”

Visitors walk past the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the burial site of Jesus Christ, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

Aintablian’s shop is located just a few steps from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

On a typical day, the church is mobbed by the faithful who lower themselves — often weeping — to kiss the marble slab they believe covers Christ’s tomb.

The usual wait time to access the tomb is an hour. On Monday, that was down to three minutes.

Al-Aqsa Mosque — the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina — and the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, were virtually empty.

‘Invisible’ threat

For the handful of tourists who entered Israel before the restrictions were in place, or those who stayed in quarantine for 14 days after arrival, the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity.

“We are thankful it’s not crowded,” said John Bruch, from the US state of Arizona.

“We’ve been able to see everything really, really well, more in-depth than we would have (in normal times),” he told AFP.

A man walks past the Dome of the Rock, in the Temple Mount compound, in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. (Emmanuel DUNAND/AFP)

Bakery-owner Marwan Shawar was not inclined to look for positives amid the pandemic.

Leaning on a glass counter above a shelf full of cakes, he gazed out at an empty street.

“What else can we do?” he asked.

During the Gulf War, “people went out to the streets to watch the missiles fall,” he said, while during the intifadas some Palestinians were “in the streets demanding more freedom and were not afraid of death.”

Coronavirus, he said, “is worse than war. It’s more dangerous. We are fighting against something unknown. Invisible.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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