Saturday, March 27, 2010

Behind the Lines: ‘We all want to make money’


The colorful, narrow alleyways of Jerusalem’s Old City were characterized by their ordinary hustle and bustle this week, and few signs could be found of recent disturbances around the Temple Mount involving clashes between police and young Palestinian men.

In the Muslim Quarter, Palestinian market stall workers selling everything from water pipes to T-shirts bearing the slogan “Don’t worry, be Jewish” did their best to woo shoppers, while in the Jewish Quarter, yeshivot were filled with the sounds of prayer and the streets were filled with visitors.

Israeli Middle Eastern music dominated the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter market vendors worked to the sound of classical Egyptian and Lebanese singers whose voices blared out of stereo speakers.

Nevertheless, some of the workers in both areas said they were concerned that the violence would return and harm the one asset that unites everyone in the area: the tourist industry.

RONI COHEN, a tour guide who originally emigrated to Israel from the US, was leading a group around the Jewish Quarter on Wednesday when he stopped to talk with The Jerusalem Post.

Cohen said periodic violence on Friday afternoon following Muslim prayers at the Mount was a real prospect.

“I don’t think there will be an intifada soon, but disturbances on Fridays could continue,” he said.

“As tour guides, our livelihood depends on the whims of Arab intifadas,” Cohen added.

Cohen said the only tourists he could rely on to continue arriving in droves, irrespective of recent developments, were Evangelical Christians.

“Tourists have never been targets of terrorist attacks here,” he stressed.

Reasons for strife with Palestinian market stall owners nearby were never political, Cohen said, but financial.

“I get along with most of the vendors. There is a little bit of animosity sometimes, because they are under the assumption that we [tour guides] decide where tourists will shop,” he said.

Asked what his hopes were for the future of Jerusalem, Cohen said his main concern was that the city remain united under Israeli sovereignty.

“I’m very much opposed to splitting Jerusalem. I don’t think we will ever be free from tensions, because no matter what Israeli government is in power, be it left-wing or right-wing, no one will split the city,” he remarked.

JUST A few dozen meters away, in the Muslim Quarter, Palestinian stall owners took a starkly different view of the situation.

“Police are causing the problems here,” said Dib Mughrabi, who owns a stall adjacent to the entrance leading to the Western Wall plaza. “The situation is terrible. The Jews are causing the trouble. Tourist numbers are down. People are scared to come.”

Another Palestinian vendor, described by his colleagues as “our spokesman,” said dividing Jerusalem between Israel and a Palestinian state would be the only way to ensure calm in the city.

The man, who asked not to be named, spoke slowly as he sat outside of his stall, watching visitors to the Old City walk by.

“The situation here is moving back and forth. In the long run, it’s going to get harder,” he said.

“The problem is that Israeli extremists want to go to Al-Aksa Mosque. Construction of Jewish homes on Sheikh Jarrah Street also causes problems,” he added. “For the past four months, we have suffered from low tourist numbers. There’s been little work.”

He opined that wider regional developments would also have a negative effect.

“The Iranian-Israeli confrontation will contribute to the bad atmosphere. The whole world is linked,” he said.

“I hope Pessah passes quietly. Everyone here is looking to make money, and everyone should go to their own holy places and worship quietly,” he continued.

“Jerusalem must be divided between us. Each side will control its area, and we can live next to one another in peace,” he added. “I believe it is possible, but peace won’t come if nobody makes a move to advance it.”

BACK ON the Jewish side of the neighborhood, Yossi, an Israeli restaurant employee who has lived in the Old City his entire life, said fears of violence were greatly exaggerated.

“Everything is great here. There are no problems. We all want to make money,” he said.

“I don’t care if Jerusalem is split or not. The main thing is, we continue to work here,” Yossi added.

But another man from the Jewish Quarter, who asked to remain anonymous, felt otherwise, saying that until the Third Temple was reconstructed and became “a house of prayer for all nations,” peace would always remain out of reach and “the city will remain as it is, moving between good and bad phases.”

“We need a quantum shift in perception, an earthquake to get past the impasse,” he said, adding that the reappearance of the Temple would “change the course of history.”
The man quickly added that he was not calling for anyone to attack Al-Aksa Mosque, saying that such action would lead to “World War Three.”

Avraham Levi, a sandwich bar owner in the Jewish Quarter, opened his establishment for business this week and expressed hope for peaceful coexistence in the Old City.

“We can have good relations with the Arabs,” he said. “But we must never divide the city.”