While walking from Jerusalem’s Jaffa Street to the Old City, I spent the first three minutes looking at everyone and wondering if they were going to stab me. This was stupid on the grounds of it being highly improbable, and because, in those moments of distraction, I was more likely to be hit by a tram.
However, it reminded me of the effects of the “knife intifada” on the human psyche, and partially explains why the number of tourists visiting Jerusalem is dropping.
Officially, there is no problem. Unofficially, there is.
For the country as a whole, visitor figures are slightly up on the first three months of last year, albeit well below pre-2014 Gaza war levels. However, the overall statistics do not tell the story of what is happening in specific areas.
Since September, 28 Israelis and two American tourists have been killed in Palestinian attacks. More than 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire, of which the Israeli authorities say at least 135 were attackers.
The Hebrew University has warned overseas students not to visit “sensitive areas”, for example around the Damascus Gate, where several stabbings have taken place. Other organisations have issued similar advice. The effects are plain to see.
I took a mid-morning walk through East Jerusalem from Damascus Gate, up along Salah-al-Din street, all the way up to the Sheik Jarrah district, pausing only for coffee and newspapers. Then I looped back past the Al Quds University, re-entering the Old City by Lion Gate. During the one-hour walk, I saw four tourists. “It’s very bad,” said a shopkeeper. “I don’t get any busy days now.” ‘Lesh” I asked – “Why?” He smiled and shrugged. “You already know, it’s the ‘situation’.”
The Old City was busy, but this was Easter, and it should have been packed. Heading south towards the Western Wall it was obvious security had been seriously intensified with far more groups of police and border guards than usual stationed at the intersections of the narrow Old City streets. This added to the slight air of tension, but one that dissipated upon passing through the metal detectors and into the Jewish Quarter.
I went up to see Moshe and Dov Kempinski at the Shorashim Biblical Shop, always a good place to take one of the many pulses beating in the heart of the Eternal City. “We’re down in numbers, not as bad as elsewhere in the Jewish Quarter, but over in the Muslim Quarter the numbers are really down. We are seeing “purposeful tourism” – people going to specific places,” said Moshe.
This being Easter, there was a specific time to be in a specific place. Christians from the world over were in town to walk the Stations of The Cross, following what they believe was the route Jesus took whilst carrying his cross on the way to be being crucified by the Romans. In a corner of the Via Dolorosa by the third station (where Jesus fell for the first time) the police had set up metal barriers to contain the crowds, and construct a ‘media pen’ for the photographers.
Usually, the whole of the Via Dolorosa is closed off as wave after wave of the faithful pour through the Old city on their way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. To prevent crushes, groups of several hundred stop-start along the route. This year rhere was no need and in fact a passageway was created down one side of the Via for people to go about their business as usual.
The first wave came – men carrying crosses, nuns clutching rosary beads, women in African dress, Americans, priests chanting in Latin, and many Arab Christians. Then the next wave, then the third. And then it was over. The barriers came down, the media photographers left, and the Arab café owners who’d been happily plying their trade to sightseers looked on mournfully as the tail of the procession disappeared. “Jeez,” said an Israeli tour guide who was with a visiting American couple from Wisconsin – “That’s it?”
That was it. Terror hurts everyone.
Adapted from an article in the UK’s Jewish Chronicle