The Zionist state disenfranchises Palestinian communities by choking the flow of tourists and destroying existing infrastructure.
Emad Abu Khadija, a Palestinian businessman in Jerusalem, owns a quaint, beautiful restaurant in the city’s old part. Owing to high taxes and constant harassment from Israeli authorities, he now faces the risk of having his business confiscated. This is due mainly to the area’s historical and geographical importance.
Lana Idkaidek, a Palestinian activist, is trying to create awareness about Abu Khadija’s story in order to raise financial and moral support for him.
“When my friend and I visited Abu Khadija’s restaurant and heard about his struggles, we decided to organise small events there to raise awareness. We organised musical evenings and quiz nights at his restaurant and invited the youth community from Jerusalem to visit the Old City more,” shares Idkaidek, adding that she and her friends are trying to support small businesses in the city who are also facing threats and harassment from Israeli authorities.
Jalal Akel, a Palestinian Jerusalemite who had recently been studying in the United States, tells a smiliar story. Akel’s last visit to Jerusalem meant finding out his favourite pizza place no longer exists. The business was run by a fellow Palestinian near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a major site of Christian significance.
“I became friends with him [the restaurant owner]. I would sit there, eat some pizza and drink some coffee,” says Akel, who feels he is treated like a “tourist and a criminal” in his homeland. He adds that one day last July he went to this old part of Jerusalem looking for the restaurant only to find out it was closed.
“I remember him complaining to me about how there are no more customers, no more tourists, no business and that he was wasting his time in the shop open 12 hours a day with, maybe, ten customers,” Akel continues, specifying how expensive it already is to have a shop in the Old City.
He recalls another recent instance in which he visited the city and saw many of the Palestinian stores in the old town, many of which he regularly frequented, shut down.
“Why is it closed? (they say) Because of Covid. Well, around Jerusalem all the Israeli shops are open,” Akel says in astonishment, stating that Covid-19 does not seem to impact Israeli shops the same way.
In 2019, it was reported that Israeli authorities closed 430 Palestinian commercial shops over a period of two decades.
A UNCTAD report further said that segregation gained momentum during the last decade through measures that altered the physical and demographic realities of the city and its mostly Palestinian and Arab populations. It noted that East Jerusalem has been “gradually detached from the rest of the Palestinian economy despite the city’s historic position as the commercial, transport, tourism, cultural and spiritual centre for Palestinians throughout the occupied territory.”
Work in jeopardy
Nabil Raz, a Palestinian entrepreneur, describes the business environment in Jerusalem as “a total collapse” over the past two years, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. Raz, who earns a living making products from olivewood, says he even had to relocate to Europe to sell his products. It was particularly upsetting because Jerusalem was once a major market for the items he sold.
“I could not work there anymore because I didn’t see any potential of tourists and other people buying my products. I had to look outside and sell abroad,” Raz says, adding that most of the work he does now is catered to the international market, including taking orders from Palestinians abroad.
Raz is working from the Czech Republic these days.
Meanwhile, Majdi Joseph, from Handmade Palestine, an organisation supporting Palestinian local artisans, says there was a time when Palestinian women had access to the market in Jerusalem. However, after the separation wall was built, their livelihoods were effectively blocked.
“Checkpoints disallowed access to Palestinians to the city of Jerusalem. These women used to sell their dairy produce in the market but lost access to their consumer base as a consequence,” he says, underscoring that his organisation is working with three women groups in and around Jerusalem. These are among the total 25 female-led cooperatives from all over Palestine. The organisation also hosts bi-annual bazaars to connect local artisans with the community in order to foster a learning environment and support their work.
‘A classic tool of colonialism’
Fayrouz Sharqawi represents Grassroots Al-Qudz, an organisation seeking to bolster Palestinian mobilisation and networking in Jerusalem. She says since the occupation of 1967, the Palestinian communities within the city are facing systematic displacement policies designed and implemented by the occupation authorities.
She adds that these policies cover all aspects of life and include land confiscation, neglecting communities and businesses, and even using the legal status of Palestinians as a tool to displace them.
“A very classic tool of colonialism is the control of the economy,'' she says. ¨The suffocation of the indigenous economies is the reality that Palestinians face in Jerusalem as well. Suppressing our economy in Jerusalem is a very important way that the Israeli occupation is using to control the population and disempower and eventually displace Palestinians from the city.”
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an independent NGO, reported that there is a widening gap in poverty rates between Israeli and Palestinian populations, adding that about 75 percent of all Palestinian families in Jerusalem lived below the poverty line, compared to 22 percent of Jewish families.
“Following the coronavirus crisis, it can be assumed that these rates have continued to increase. Among children, the situation is even worse — 86 percent of Palestinian children in Jerusalem lived below the poverty line in 2017, compared to 33 percent of Jewish children,” it stated.
Sharqawi confirms that the poverty rate is already costly and nearing 80 percent in the city.
There is also economic discrimination in the planning and construction sector. “Only 15 percent of East Jerusalem — which accounts for only 8.5 percent of Jerusalem as a whole — is allocated for residential use by Palestinian residents.” As a result, the density of housing in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem averages 1.8 people per room — almost twice as much as the Jewish neighborhoods in the west of the city, according to the NGO’s report.
Impact on tourism
Because Jerusalem is one of the top tourist destinations in the world - mainly because of the historical and religious significance it holds - Palestinians in the city depend significantly on this industry. Tourism makes up 40 percent of their economy. However, according to Palestinian activists, their communities and areas are advertised as dangerous to visitors and thus a “false reality” has been created that discourages tourists from visiting.
“Our voice is not heard, our economy is not supported, and people do not invest any of their money,” Sharqawi remarks.
According to a report published in 2020, religious and pilgrimage groups are dominating the tourism market in East Jerusalem and Bethlehem. It adds that no accommodation facilities have been developed since 1967 in this part of the city due to Israeli restrictions. This has prevented East Jerusalem from turning into a tourism centre and “acutely halted any possibility to develop new tourism sectors.”
Meanwhile, Sharqawi contends that Israeli policies and tourism advertisements often hide or omit Palestinian shops, hotels and businesses in the city. This has severe political and economic implications for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
“Israeli advertisements invite you to visit Western side of occupied Jerusalem where there are no Palestinian communities. One of the maps used a lot here is published by Israeli occupation of Jerusalem and, looking at this map, the city center and all attractions are located in Western part where Israeli businesses are located,” she continues.
According to Sharqawi, the result of this “propaganda” is that tourists do not see the occupation and its implications for Palestinian communities in the city.
“They do not see the forces raiding our communities and arresting our people. They do not see the demolished homes, intentional neglect and underdevelopment of our communities, and thus do not see how the occupation is translated into our daily lives,” she bemoans
Crushed by Covid-19
Raz, who has worked in the tourism sector for 10 years, says that tourism has also been heavily hit in the Palestinian territories because of the pandemic.
“Israel had totally stopped allowing tourists from March 2020. A lot of hotels, restaurants and people who cater to the tourist industry have been hit hard, especially in the East Jerusalem side where a great number of Palestinians work,” he says, anticipating that it will take a very long time to recover.
Israel opened up to vaccinated visitors this November after 20 months of closure under several restrictions. Still, many Palestinians who are reliant on tourism are hoping for a return to normalcy and recovery from the economic losses. Individual tourists are currently only allowed to enter Israel only if they have received a third booster dose or if their second vaccine dose was less than six months ago.