Arab East Jerusalem tourist sector suffers under Israeli occupation

Arab East Jerusalem tourist sector suffers under Israeli occupation
Feature: Poorly supported by the Palestinian authority, Arab hotels, shops and guides in Arab East Jerusalem are suffering under the Israeli occupation.
7 min read
16 April, 2015
The Arab tourist sector is suffering even as tourists flock to Jerusalem [Yadid Levy]

The occupation has made life very difficult for many tourism-related businesses in Arab East Jerusalem. Shopkeepers, hoteliers and tour guides have all faced tough economic times, brought on by restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities since the city was occupied in 1967.

Yousef al-Natsheh, a shopkeeper in Arab East Jerusalem, has had to change the nature of his shop’s trade three times since Israel occupied the eastern half of the city in 1967, just to stay in business.

Of the 1,200 merchants who were in the Old City, 250 have been forced to change their trade, rent out their shops or close down.

Natsheh inherited his father’s grocery shopis located at the Bab al-Silsila market in the Old City. In the mid-1970s, after the restrictions imposed on the residents of Jerusalem and on their movement in and out of the market leading to the Wailing Wall because of the settlers, he had to switch into trading in antiques and souvenirs.

However, he suffered a second setback after Cardo market was opened in the Jewish quarter (built on top of the Islamic al-Sharaf neighbourhood). Tourism and shopping subsequently moved away from the Arab markets.

Natsheh said: "I had to change my trade for the third time and now sell water pipes. I open the shop only for half a day, and then close it for a day or two. It’s better than completely closing down the shop.

"I don’t want to weaken the resolve of my neighbours the other merchants, who are in the same boat, and leave the entire market and allow the occupation to seize the city and expel its residents, as it dreams."

History repeats itself

Jersualem receives tens of thousands of Muslim tourists each year, but the Arab tourism sector benefits little from them.

Ziad al-Hammouri, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic rights, told al-Araby al-Jadeed, "Natshe’s fears regarding a commercial and touristic blockade suggests the scenario of appropriating Arab properties in the holy city could be repeated."

Hammouri says there is a methodical and dangerous Israeli plan to appropriate Arab properties by taking advantage of the increasing amounts of debt merchants have taken on, which could force them to declare bankruptcy.

Following that step, Hammouri continued, an Israeli "assessor" would be appointed to control those merchants’ properties, to assess their value before putting them up for sale in an auction.

Jawad Abu Omar sits outside his shop, which sells antiques in the Christian Quarter, chatting with his neighbours. Not much business is taking place. He told al-Araby "This is what happens every day. We sit watching people passing by, but no one buys or sells.

"We would be lucky to sell 300 shekels’ worth a day ($67). I have to pay 7,000 shekels ($1775) in annual taxes, though I’m still better than others who have to pay 25,000 ($6340). I cannot change my business nor sell the shop. I’m waiting for support but I do not expect it to come."

Abu Omar continued "The municipality diverted the tourist trail to the Jaffa Gate and the Mughrabi Gate, denying Arab merchants the chance of having tourists pass by their shops. The excuse was the Christian Easter and then the Jewish holidays."

Data from the Jerusalem Centre for Social and Economic Rights indicates that merchants in Jerusalem, including antique and souvenir dealers, lost more than 50 percent of their customers because of the Israeli siege on the city, the separation barrier, the checkpoints, and various restrictions Israel imposes on Arabs in the city.

The centre says that for the past three years Jerusalemite merchants have been relying on customers in Jerusalem. However, according to the centre, this does not bring enough business because the poverty rate in East Jerusalem, according to the Israeli National Insurance Office was 80 percent in 2014.

This has made things very difficult for merchants in the city, who now have to dip into their capital to cover expenses and taxes due to the occupation authorities.

Arab tourism agencies suffering

"The Palestinians have been suffering fora long time from the touristic and commercial siege on Jerusalem," says Sami Abu Diyeh, the head of the Association of Arab Tourism Agencies in Palestine.

Abu Diyeh told al-Araby: "The Arab tourism agencies since the start of the second intifada in 2000 did not operate at more than 35 percent of their capacity because of the Israeli control over crossings, and the fact that Israeli tour guides escort tourists from when they arrive until they leave Palestine."

He added "In the event there are visits to the West Bank, these are short and do not benefit the Arab agencies."

Abu Diyeh continued: "With the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015, things got worse because of the most recent Israeli assault on Gaza, the clashes in the holy city, and the Israeli elections, all factors that spooked investors away from investing in the city.

"What made matters worse is the low exchange rate of the euro. No one has tried to promote the city locally or internationally either. This year, Arab tourism agencies will not realise the profits they expected and will barely break even, compared to the huge support and subsidies offered by the israeli government to the Israeli tourism sector."

Recently, a report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz said Israel relies on Muslim visitors to the city to a great extent. According to the report, 26,700 tourists from Indonesia came to the city in 2014, as well as 17,700 from Jordan, 23,000 from Turkey, 9,000 from Malaysia, and 3,300 from Morocco. Yet the Arab tourist sector only receives crumbs from the revenues these tourists bring.

The Arab hospitality sector is suffering

Raed Saadeh, owner of the Jerusalem Hotel in the occupied city and vice president of the Association of Arab Hoteliers in Palestine, is busy attending to his business in the lobby of his hotel.

He and other Arab hoteliers in the city are in an unenviable position: According to data collected by al-Araby, 28 Arab hotels, with a capacity of 1,500 to 1,700 rooms cannot compete with four Israeli hotels built on the 1967 borders of the Old City, and which together have more rooms than the 28 Arab hotels combined.

Saadeh said: "The Arab hotel sector cannot compete with Israeli hotels. After losing tourists and diplomatic visitors, the Arab hotels have no purpose. Meanwhile, the Israeli occupation promotes the eastern part of the city as being merely a suburb of West Jerusalem.

"We cannot alone keep up with the Judaisation of the city and the high operating costs, not to mention the astronomical taxes."

The restrictions on Palestinian tour guides reached the extent of censoring their explanations of the city's history.

"What we need is support and funding. We need new tourist schemes with a Palestinian flavour that would make tourism in the city less seasonal. We need appropriate programs for all social segments that come to visit, and we need to attract internal tourism by opening heritage markets and helping supporting sectors such as handicrafts and women's artisan shops."

Fifty Israeli tour guides for every Arab equivalent

"Thirty years have passed in which the occupation have denied work permits to Palestinian tour guides in Jerusalem. As a result, the profession was Judaized with 15,000 Israeli tour guides now operating compared to 300 Arab guides," says the president of the Palestinian Tour Guides Union Samir Behbeh, citing figures from 1997. These figures have only changed slightly since.

The restrictions on Palestinian tour guides reached the extent of censoring their explanations of the city’s history. The Israeli Antiquities Authority also made exams for Arab tour guides more difficult, while we were told the Israelis deliberately portray Arab merchants in the city as thieves and profiteers, and tell tourists to go to the Cardo markets instead.

Absence of official support

The Palestinian National Authority allocates no more than 1 percent of its budget for Jerusalem, less than 20 million shekels ($5 million), compared to the $1.5 billion budget of the Israeli municipality of Jerusalem.

At the orders of the Israeli Minister of Internal Security, the Arab Chamber of Commerce in Jerusalem was closed down, the body that represents Jerusalem's merchants. According to director general Fadi al-Hadmi, investors are steering clear of the Arab city, and this compounds the limited internal and external support.

Hadmi said, "We recently launched a cluster initiative with the support of the French Development Agency, seeking to revive basic components of the economy led by shops manufacturing souvenirs and oriental antiques."

The official response to the complaints documented by al-Araby came from the spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Jeries Qumsiyeh.

He said: "The obstacles put in place by the occupation are the reason for the limited powers of the ministry in the occupied city. We cannot license new hotels in Jerusalem. We cannot even count the number of tourists entering Palestine in general, as Israel controls the crossings and the borders."

Regarding increasing the allocations for Jerusalem in the budget, Qumsiyeh said, "The ministry's budget is modest. We rely on external support for existing projects."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.