JERUSALEM // Israeli security measures introduced since an upturn in violence late last year are choking the economy of the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, and the hardest hit has been a little known community of Palestinians of African descent.
The Afro-Palestinians, as they call themselves, live in a neighbourhood adjoining Al Aqsa mosque, trapped between two Israeli police checkpoints through which only residents can pass during the day. As a result, their shops are cut off from the crowds of worshippers who visit the mosque, leaving the community on the brink of poverty.
Across the Muslim and Christian quarters of the Old City, 35 per cent of business have closed and those that have remained open have lost up to 80 per cent of their revenues since additional security measures were put in place, according to the local merchants’ association. The Israeli government does not make public economic data for the Old City.
There are seven stalls in the small Afro-Palestinian neighbourhood that sell clothing, trinkets and snacks, mainly to people streaming in and out of Al Aqsa mosque for prayers. But the normally bustling entrance to Al Aqsa compound is also deserted now because the increased security has deterred many worshippers.
Nearby is the entry point to the African Quarter neighbourhood, called Bab Al Majles Al Islami or Bab Al Nazer, where the community of about 350 Afro-Palestinians live in small flats between Al Wad Street and one of the main eastern entry points to Al Aqsa and its compound.
Nearly a century years ago, Muslim pilgrims from Chad, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan came to Jerusalem and decided to settle here in two detached houses that today, three generations later, have grown into five apartment complexes built around courtyards that are nearly invisible from the main street to Al Aqsa mosque.
The residents pay a largely symbolic rent to the Islamic Waqf, which owns the property, and some of the Afro-Palestinians act as guards at Al Aqsa as a community service.
The Christian, Armenian, Muslim and Jewish Quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City are widely known, but the African Quarter is one of a few micro-communities that gets less attention. Its original buildings are more than 900 years old. When Jerusalem was part of the Ottoman empire from the 16th century until 1917, the two houses first occupied by the African Muslim pilgrims were jails – on one side were people sentenced to life in prison, on the other were those sentenced to death. It was known as “the blood prison”.
Today, its feels as though Bab Al Majles has once again become a prison, residents say. Ali Jiddah, in his mid-60s, said residents had no idea if they would be coming home at the end of each day as tensions mount in the Old City and checkpoints and security measures are moved and changed on daily basis. They live in fear of being killed or arrested, he said. Two children under the age of 12 were recently placed under house arrest for throwing stones at newly installed security cameras.
The Afro-Palestinians are fiercely committed to the Palestinian nationalist cause and say police have identified them as a target group. Many have served time in Israeli prisons. Mr Jiddah was a member of the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and spent 17 years in Israeli prisons from the 1970s to the 1980s.
Another member of the community, Fatima Barnawi, daughter of a Nigerian father and Palestinian mother, was the first Palestinian woman arrested on terrorism changes. As a member of Fatah, she planted a bomb in the Zion Theatre in central Jerusalem in 1967. It did not explode but she was sentenced 30 years in prison and served 10 before being exiled.
“Our contribution to the Palestinian national struggle gave us special status among Palestinians – we are accepted, well respected and I never felt discriminated against because of my colour,” Mr Jiddah said.
But in an Israeli society shifting rightward – a poll last week found that nearly half of Jewish citizens supported the expulsion of all Palestinians – recent African immigrants and refugees have become targets for xenophobic political rhetoric and violence.
In October last year, near the start of the latest wave of violence in Israel and the occupied West Bank that has left nearly 200 Palestinians dead as well as about 30 Israelis, an Ethiopian man was shot and beaten to death when he was mistaken for a Palestinian attacker. Other attacks against non-Jewish African asylum seekers have been documented. Even Ethiopian Jews took to the streets earlier last year to protest against Israeli police brutality.
In such a climate, Afro-Palestinians say they are especially vulnerable. “If you take our situation on the Israeli side, Palestinians are oppressed but as Afro-Palestinians we are doubly-oppressed: as Palestinians and secondly because of our colour. They call us ‘Kushi’, which means nigger, or sambo. Whenever there are political tensions between Palestinians and Israelis, the first sector to be affected by such measures is the Afro-Palestinians,” Mr Jiddah said. Afro-Palestinians are the first to lose their jobs in businesses run by Jewish Israelis, he added.
The majority-Arab Old City and its main eastern entrance, Damascus Gate, quickly became a focal point for Arab-Jewish tensions after a stabbing attack on October 3 last year in the Old City left two Jewish Israelis dead and two injured. The Palestinian assailant was shot dead.
Since October, 12 Palestinians accused of attacking or attempting to attack Israelis at Damascus Gate have been shot dead by Israeli forces. The area is now known to Palestinians as “martyrs gate”.
The once lively market area is now eerily quiet. Stalls and shops that lined the gate were cleared after automatic weapons and pipe bombs were found hidden in nearby stall carts last month. Afro-Palestinians were not implicated in the weapons cache.
There is a heavy police presence there now. On a recent day in early March, six Israeli police officers stood guard at Damascus Gate checking identification and questioning mainly younger Palestinian men. Elderly Palestinians walked silently past.
The police have increased such checks, which now include body searches of people they consider suspicious – at times asking people to remove layers of clothing on the street.
Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were now up to 600 border police and Jerusalem district police working in the Old City across several shifts. He would not specify how many extra police had been deployed, but it is believed there are hundreds of extra staff in and around the Old City. The Israeli government announced the deployment of an extra 1,000 police across Jerusalem last October.
While the small Afro-Palestinian community has been particularly affected, the Old City’s broader economy depends on its many small businesses and the recent hardship has been felt across the Arab city.
Khaled Saheb, the head of the Palestinian Old City Merchants’ Association, which represents 1,400 shop owners, said business revenues are estimated to have dropped between 65 and 80 per cent since the beginning of the latest outbreak of violence.
Mr Saheb had to close his men’s clothing shop when Israeli forces set up a checkpoint in front of it, blocking off potential customers. He received no compensation and now struggles to feed his family, he said.
Israeli officials deny that the security measures are taking an economic toll on Palestinians. “I walk around the Old City all the time and it’s been fully functioning and busy,” Mr Rosenfeld said.
The restrictions are also stifling the social life of the Old City. Sheikh Mousa Qous, who runs the African Association centre, said it had been forced to close due to the restrictions on non-residents entering through the two checkpoints that are less than 100 metres apart.
“The soldiers have a new policy of searching Palestinians in a very humiliating way,” he said. “This has left an imprint on people – when they see such humiliating treatment of religious women and men in the middle of the street they decide not to come to the Old City.”
According to Mr Qous, the economic impact of the current uprising is the greatest he has seen since the first Intifada, which began in 1987.
Mana Subliman ran a community centre in the Old City until last December, when it was forced to close its doors. “Travel restrictions over the past year, but mostly since October, have made the centre gradually collapse,” she said. “During the week there are restrictions on passing through the checkpoints – only neighbourhood residents are allowed to cross, and sometimes [only] men over the age of 50.”
Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said the restrictions amounted to “collective punishment”. It has also condemned the restriction of movement into and out of the African Quarter.
“Restricting the freedom of movement of all Palestinians in East Jerusalem, most of whom have no bearing on the attacks against Israelis, constitutes collective punishment that is prohibited under international law,” the rights group said.
*An earlier version of this story contained quotes from a woman named Rihab Kafr’ani, who was erroneously identified as “Afro-Palestinian” and is in fact just Palestinian.