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In Jerusalem's Old City, Residents Say Virus 'Worse than War'

In Jerusalem's Old City, Residents Say Virus 'Worse than War'

Thursday, 19 March, 2020 - 05:30
A woman walks past closed shops along a deserted alley in the Old City of Jerusalem. AFP
Asharq Al-Awsat

Munib Abu Assab, a tour operator in Jerusalem's Old City, has seen deserted streets before, but he said not even past conflicts over the contested land compare to the impact of coronavirus.

The 56-year-old Palestinian has lived several wars and two Palestinian intifadas, however, says this year is his worst.

So far 2020 "is the worst year I have had in my life," said Assab, who currently spends most of his time cancelling tours after Israel imposed tight travel restrictions to contain the pandemic.

Assab says during the second intifada business was low, but even then he had a day or two worth of income each week.

Now Jerusalem's ancient alleyways, typically crammed with tourists visiting sacred sites or wandering through shops and markets, are all but empty.

Israel has recorded 433 coronavirus cases, with another 44 in the occupied Palestinian territories. It has banned non-essential movement and ordered the closure of all leisure and entertainment venues.

"The crisis now is new," he told AFP.

"We are killed with corona. We have zero percent income," he added, warning that he may have to lay off two of his four employees.

More than three million people visit Jerusalem each year, most of whom pass through the walled Old City, which encloses in less than a square kilometer sites holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Last year, Tzoghig Karakashian celebrated the 100th anniversary of her family's ceramics shop in the Old City.

Speaking to AFP on Monday, before the ban on non-essential movement came into force, Karakashian said her employees had preferred to stay home to avoid contracting the virus.

But the woman of US origin said she could not bring herself to close the store -- not that staying open did much good.

"I haven't seen a single customer today," she said, sighing.

"The Old City is a dead city. Why should they come? There is nothing to do."

She said people were more afraid now than they were during the intifadas.

Those "were political," she told AFP. "This is not political. Now it's a health issue. That's very different."

Her brother Moses Aintablian, who owns a shop nearby, agreed that people were more fearful now than during the past conflicts.

"People are more scared of the virus. People know the war starts and will finish," he said.

"But this one, nobody knows if it's going to finish, or get worse, nobody knows."

Al-Aqsa Mosque -- the third holiest site in Islam and the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, were virtually empty.

For the handful of tourists who entered the area before the restrictions were in place, or those who stayed in quarantine for 14 days after arrival, the pandemic has offered a unique opportunity.

"We are thankful it's not crowded," said John Bruch, from the US state of Arizona.

"We've been able to see everything really, really well, more in-depth than we would have (in normal times)," he told AFP.

Bakery-owner Marwan Shawar was not inclined to look for positives amid the pandemic.

Leaning on a glass counter above a shelf full of cakes, he gazed out at an empty street.

"What else can we do?" he asked.

Coronavirus, he said, "is worse than war. It's more dangerous. We are fighting against something unknown. Invisible."

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