Jerusalem's Old City businesses desperate as Israel-Gaza war drags on

The city is usually full of visitors but its tourism economy has ground to a halt, hitting residents hard

Many streets are empty in Jerusalem's Christian Quarter. Thomas Helm / The National
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Temperatures have dropped but the sky is clear above Jerusalem, and the Old City should be having a lucrative November, even though the main summer tourism season is over.

Instead, business owners are having a painfully quiet period. Visitors have dried up because of the Israel-Gaza war and many shopowners have long stopped bothering to open their businesses.

The owner of Lebanese Restaurant in the Christian Quarter wondered why he even fired up his stoves. The restaurant got its first and only customer for the day at 1.30pm.

“We’re back in Covid-19,” the manager said. “I can only hope the war ends quicker than the pandemic.”

He sold one sandwich for 25 shekels ($6.70).

The number of people walking along his road, a predominantly Catholic route used by many Christian Quarter residents, was nonetheless relatively high for the Old City on Friday.

On the intersecting Christian Quarter Road, where most of the businesses cater to tourists, perhaps fewer than 10 per cent of shops were open.

It runs parallel to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, whose empty halls make plain quite how clear the hit to tourism and pilgrimage has been.

Not a single person was crouched over the Stone of Anointing, where crowds of hunched, sometimes weeping pilgrims are normally found.

In the Aedicule, thought to be Jesus’s tomb, fencing to manage long queues has been removed.

One Orthodox nun crouched by the shrine uninterrupted for a quarter of an hour, which would have been impossible before October 7. She could have stayed longer.

Eastward in the Muslim Quarter, the 124-bed Austrian Hospice, the oldest and arguably most famous Christian guesthouse in the Old City, would normally be full of the pilgrims that make Holy Sepulchre so busy.

A young volunteer at the hostel told The National that not a single guest was staying there.

The Muslim Quarter was still the busiest area of the Old City. The shops there were serving people streaming out of Al Aqsa Mosque after Friday prayers.

The mood might not have been as resigned as the Christian Quarter, but it was far more tense.

Israeli authorities have placed tough restrictions on worshippers at the mosque – the third holiest site in Islam – since the war began, often only allowing those above the age of 70 to enter.

On the sixth Friday since the war started, scenes around the mosque were the same as in the beginning: largely silent Muslim residents walked past heavy concentrations of Israeli police and border guards, who looked over far smaller crowds of worshippers due to heavier-than-usual restrictions on access from the occupied West Bank and an absence of pilgrims.

It meant that the funeral procession of one woman was far more sparsely populated than it should have been.

Her body was carried from Friday prayers at the mosque by only a handful of mourners, who crossed the flashpoint Al Alam Street, briefly walking past Israeli forces and then up Nun’s Ascent back into the privacy of the narrow side avenues.

The National, after being briefly questioned by a border policeman nearby, asked the group of young Israelis on patrol why the Old City was so empty of visitors.

“It’s quiet because of us,” said one, no older than 20.

He interpreted “quiet” to mean free from violence, and it is true that authorities have managed to quash serious clashes in the city during the past two months.

Whether this near lockdown makes Jerusalem safer in the long run, as its people face an increasingly desperate economic situation, remains to be seen.

Updated: November 20, 2023, 12:08 PM