The Palestinian hotelier on the front line of Jerusalem's economic crisis

Abu El Walid Dajani says he has never seen so much hardship in the Old City in all his decades running the Imperial Hotel in the Christian Quarter

Hotelier Abu El Walid Dajani says he finds it hard to see how businesses in Jerusalem's Old City will recover from the impact of the Israel-Gaza war. Thomas Helm / The National
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Very few people are more capable of assessing the mood in Jerusalem’s Old City than Abu El Walid Dajani.

For decades he has looked out of the window of his office over Jaffa Gate, at the pilgrims, tourists and soldiers that mill around in the eastern Israeli-occupied side of the city.

He was there when Israel seized control of all Jerusalem in 1967.

Since then, he has welcomed guests, dignitaries and patriarchs who come to his hotel, The Imperial, to hear what one the area's most prominent businesspeople has to say about one of the most contested cities around.

But today, for the first time, the hotelier and raconteur is lost for words.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he says, looking across his desk towards the empty reception desk.

“You might as well be talking to a dead man."

I get the feeling that the Old City is ageing. It’s as if it’s a sick elderly patient who is not getting its intravenous medicine
Abu El Walid Dajani, hotelier in Jerusalem

Visitors to the Old City in East Jerusalem have dropped sharply since the Israel-Gaza war began in October.

“We’re in the desert, waiting for someone to save us. The whole Old City is bankrupt. It is like walking through a cemetery,” Mr Dajani says.

“One day or another the Gaza war will end, but I don’t see how you revive the Old City and get Palestinian businesses back.”

The statement of defeat is quite something from a man who has just weathered the economic impact of Covid-19 and who has stood strong for decades against the harsher realities of life for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

He has been locked in legal battles with Israeli settlers who colluded with Greek Orthodox officials to gain control of The Imperial, one of the most important and recognisable buildings in the Christian Quarter.

Among the jars of sweets, photos and artefacts that fill his office spill are scattered ring binders and folders stuffed full of court documents from the various battles he has fought to keep his hotel.

Mr Dajani’s love of the city is clear even with all this stress, although one of his friends says the hotelier has barely slept in years.

“I get the feeling that the Old City is ageing. It’s as if it’s a sick elderly patient who is not getting its intravenous medicine,” Mr Dajani says.

“But don’t talk to me or economists about our problems. Talk to nine-year-old boys about what do they expect, what are they looking for, whether they like school. I’m sure they will tell you they do and that they have hope,” he adds.

“Come back and ask the same questions when they are 15. You will feel the anger. Maybe some of them will say they want to stab a soldier.”

“I think we’ll need all the psychiatrists of the world to come here for three years to deal with this emerging crisis.”

And nothing is being done to deal with the brewing disaster, according to Mr Dajani.

“The Israelis don’t have a vision. They’re not getting new blood to deal with the crisis. The occupation can’t continue for another two or three hundred years, like it did with the Turks,” he says.

“It wasn’t always like this. If people were unhappy in 1967, the governor or the municipality would act immediately. Now, nothing.”

Despite the pain in his eyes, he vows to keep coming back to his hotel, no matter how long the war drags on. The lights might be off, the rooms empty and his staff gone for now, but Mr Dajani cannot leave the office from where he has seen so much.

“If you take me out of this hotel, I’d be like a fish out of water,” he says.

Updated: February 23, 2024, 6:00 PM