Palestinians of historic Jerusalem neighbourhood fear displacement
Nothing looks normal in the neighbourhood of Bab Hutta in the Old City of Jerusalem near the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The sound of traders and passersby in the alleyway - normally vibrant with worshippers coming to pray in the mosque during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan or on Fridays throughout the year - is now hushed.
On their way into the Old City, visitors might usually go through Herod's Gate, taking a left towards Bab Hutta to be received by the smiling faces of bakery owners and grocery shopkeepers.
However, since early November, only a few of these Palestinian traders have been able to open their businesses due to measures by Israeli authorities deemed arbitrary, which have pushed some of them to close down their shops for good.
'This was the first time in my life that I saw the neighbourhood completely barren and lifeless'
- Amani Najib, former Bab Hutta resident
Abu Muhammad, a merchant whose family has rented a small grocery store on the road to Bab Hutta for a hundred years, told Middle East Eye that for decades both his father and his grandfather sold groceries to residents and visitors of the area.
He said the commercial collapse in the souks of the Old City began with the eruption of the First Intifada in 1987 and accelerated with the escalating tension in occupied East Jerusalem during the Second Intifada in 2000.
Restrictions on the merchants of Bab Hutta reached their peak in 2017, when two Israeli policemen were shot dead at Bab Hutta Gate, one of the entrances to the Al-Aqsa compound, by three Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Even though Palestinian merchants have been suffering from arbitrary fines and compulsory closures of their shops since 1967, Abu Muhammad said the latest escalation is unprecedented.
"On 10 November, we were surprised by an attack from forces including cadres from several Israeli institutions, among others: the income tax, intelligence, Israeli police, the Environment Protection Authority, the Consumer Protection Agency, property tax, and VAT," he said.
"They took us by surprise and started searching our shops and gave the traders subpoenas for interrogation the following day."
Abu Muhammad believes that the pressure on local Palestinian merchants aims to empty out the neighbourhood of its commerce and passersby in order to provide a comfortable setting for a family of Israeli settlers who moved into the area two years ago.
He does not deny the fact that some Jerusalemite merchants have failed to pay the appropriate amounts of tax levied on them, while others fail to abide by the rules completely. But he reiterated that the various arms of the Israeli occupation resort to restrictions and exert pressures as a punitive measure with the aim of pushing out Palestinians from the Old City.
"We notice a lot of irregularities by [Israeli] merchants and shopkeepers in Western Jerusalem without being questioned by anybody because their economies are not being targeted like ours have been in East Jerusalem since 1967," he said.
Residents and merchants of Bab Hutta agree among themselves that Israel has increased pressure on them after repeated attacks on settlers, who took their case to the Israeli police.
The police are believed to be supporting the settlers by suppressing Palestinian Jerusalemites, including merchants, in the area.
Since the last raid on the neighbourhood, six commercial shops have closed their doors. The remaining traders are worried they might face the same fate if the situation goes on.
While Israeli police allege that the traders are not adhering to the instructions of the Israeli Ministry of Health with regard to wearing face masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, both residents and merchants refute such claims, telling MEE they are committed to following the instructions of the health authorities.
The day after the 10 November raid, the merchants went to the police station.
"Israeli intelligence officers offered to cancel all fines and claims against us if we could just provide the police the names of the young men who annoy and attack the settlers," Abu Muhammad told MEE. "In other words, they want to turn us into lackeys."
After a lot of hesitation, Abu Saleh, a thirty-something Bab Hutta merchant, told MEE about the old and new restrictions while other shopkeepers walked around tensely.
Abu Saleh began working in his family's bakery several years ago, which has been famous for about half a century for making kaak al-Quds, Jerusalem bread.
He told MEE that Israeli authorities were targeting Bab Hutta because it is adjacent to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and because - save for one Israeli family living in the neighbourhood in contravention of international law - the overwhelming majority of its residents are Palestinians.
'The solidarity in our neighbourhood bothers the occupation. They come to arrest us and try to make our lives miserable in an attempt to make us leave'
- Dalal Najib, Bab Hutta resident
"Some children threw stones on some Israeli soldiers passing from here one day when I was preparing to go home, but they punished me by keeping me in the bakery and calling a team from the municipality, who issued a fine under the pretext that the entrance to the bakery was full of stones," he said.
"This is how we live under oppression and injustice."
Notwithstanding the daily actions, Abu Saleh is committed to keeping the family's bakery and maintaining its confection of traditional kaak al-Quds as a remaining symbol of Palestinian heritage in the Old City.
Abu Saleh maintains that the restrictions are not limited to raids of shops and fines, but that shopkeepers are now being hindered from reaching their businesses under the pretext that they are violating quarantine regulations.
"When we approach the gates to the Old City, the soldiers ask for our IDs; they search us physically and question us before we can reach our businesses," he said.
While talking to MEE in his old bakery, Abu Saleh was anxiously watching the outside, fearing a sudden raid by Israeli forces.
'Famous for resisting the occupation'
Facing Abu Saleh's bakery is the home of the Najib family.
Dalal Najib was born in Bab Hutta and has been living there for 59 years.
Along with the other residents of the neighbourhood, she and her family have not been spared by the Israeli authorities, as police and intelligence officers have raided their courtyard, alleging that the merchants are using it as a storage area.
Najib and her neighbours procure their daily groceries from Bab Hutta and buy their bread and pastries from its bakery. The closure of these shops will have a severe impact on the residents because the other souks are relatively far.
"Bab Hutta is famous for resisting the occupation," Najib said. "The residents and merchants have always extended a hand to the injured during confrontations. They also extended support during sit-ins launched by Jerusalemites at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2017.
"The solidarity in our neighbourhood bothers the occupation," she added. "They come to arrest us and try to make our lives miserable in an attempt to make us leave."
Najib said that her reaction toward such attempts was "more and more steadfastness and resolve to stay in Bab Hutta".
Amani Najib, another member of the family, told MEE that she had lived in the neighbourhood for 37 years, but left one year ago to move in with her husband in another neighbourhood in Jerusalem. However, she said she still visits the area almost daily.
"If I happen to miss a day without coming to Bab Hutta to hear the cheerful children playing and the merchants chatting and laughing, I feel like I missed some oxygen," Amani said.
"When the shops closed for four consecutive days because of the last raid, I felt that life went to a standstill and the blood in my veins went dry.
"This was the first time in my life that I saw the neighbourhood completely barren and lifeless," Amani added.
What worries her the most is if the shop closures last longer.
"I am afraid worshipers might get used to the situation and start to look for other routes to reach the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which could, in turn, lead to a complete standstill in Bab Hutta, known for being among the most convenient routes for worshipers coming from the various Palestinian provinces to pray in the holy Aqsa Mosque," she said.
Hejazi al-Rishq, the head of the Palestinian Jerusalem Merchants' Committee, told MEE that Bab Hutta is home to 53 commercial outlets: grocery shops, bakeries, a barbershop and other types of stores. Twenty-four of these closed down during the raids and restrictions in 2017 and 2018.
Rishq added that the Old City of Jerusalem hosts a total of 1,372 stores, 354 of which had closed down over an extended period of time prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 460 outlets specialised in selling touristic and antique items have closed down, leaving half of the commercial outlets in the Old City closed.
Punished for supporting worshippers
"The main reason behind targeting this part of the Old City in particular lies in the fact that the people here stood by the worshipers and provided them with food and water around the clock during their sit-ins at the gates of Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2017," Rishq said.
Now, he said, the Israeli government is committing violations against the residents and merchants as a punishment for their stance during the protests against the installation of metal detectors at the flashpoint religious site, as well as in an endeavour to streamline the passage of settlers in the area.
The recent raid by Israeli forces was not limited to issuing fines and calling for interrogation and lawsuits against the merchants; it also inflicted material damage as the doors of three shops were broken and commodities were confiscated, Rishq said.
In response to the latest Israeli attack, Rishq added that the committee of merchants had launched an appeal to all Jerusalemites, asking them to do their shopping in the Old City in order to help local businesses flourish and maintain Palestinian presence in Bab Hutta.