newsIsrael at War

Jerusalem’s Old City braces for Ramadan tension, drop in business

The Muslim holy month, usually a period teeming with shoppers, will not be the same because of the war.

Border Police officers patrol the Old City in Jerusalem, February 2024. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon.
Border Police officers patrol the Old City in Jerusalem, February 2024. Photo by Oren Ben Hakoon.

A tense and apprehensive atmosphere can be felt these days at Damascus Gate and in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City ahead of Ramadan, which begins on March 10, give or take a day.

Already at our meeting at the stairs in Damascus Gate plaza, two Border Police officers hurried towards us. One of them approached us and told us firmly that gathering in the Damascus Gate plaza, an area nicknamed “the bathtub,” is prohibited.

We tried to explain that we were a news crew but to no avail. We had to give up staying in the famous Damascus Gate “bathtub” and continue deeper into the Muslim Quarter. Additional police and Border Police forces are deployed extensively, and they seem prepared for any development.

For 38 years, Raymond has had a juice stand at the entrance to the market.

“The situation is bad as you can see,” he says in frustration while making carrot juice. “Since the war started there have been no tourists or Israelis and nothing. What can we do? Nothing. Look at our situation. Five shekels [$1.37] for coffee or juice. I took a loan from the bank, it is what it is.”

We arrived at Damascus Gate on Thursday, the day of the deadly attack on the road between Ma’ale Adumim and Jerusalem, and the mood was grim.

“It only makes the situation worse,” Raymond shared. “It’s all a façade. Only God knows what will happen towards Ramadan. If they restrict the entry of young [Muslim] worshippers [to the Temple Mount], it will be even worse. Everyone should be allowed to pray freely. Can you tell someone not to come to the Western Wall?”

In the past, there were deadly attacks on Hagai Street. Memorial plaques for the murdered are scattered along the largely empty street. The shops on the street are closed and there is a depressed atmosphere. Jewish passersby on their way to the Western Wall occasionally pass by us, most of them armed.

“My feeling is great,” says one of the local residents with a big kipah on his head as he passes by Muslims without fear. “We’ve been here for 40 years,” he calls out to us and continues on his way.

The security post near the Austrian Hospice is unmanned and only Israeli flags and barriers remain. Down the street, alert forces are patrolling.

‘60% of the stores do not even open’

Saleh Mitwali, owner of a clothing store in the Muslim Quarter, sits on a stool waiting for customers who do not come and laments that “60% of the stores do not even open. We are waiting. Inshallah [“God willing”] it will be better.”

He too is worried about expected restrictions on Muslim worshippers coming to the Temple Mount during Ramadan.

“If that happens, all the stores here will close,” he says.

He steps out of his small store and points to the closed shops. “There will be no people. Whom are we going to open the stores for? We are waiting for people to come during Ramadan and buy something. If there are restrictions, and no worshippers come to Al-Aqsa mosque—we’ll close everything and go home. All the store owners wait for Ramadan all year. That’s our work. We want peace. When there’s no peace everyone is scared.”

Sheikh Amin arranges his falafel stand and the salad bowls and passionately details in Hebrew and Arabic: “Everyone is depressed. We want real peace for everyone. There is no peace for anyone, not for Jews or Arabs. I want us to live with calm, peace and love. You are a human being like me, we are all the same thing. We have feelings and children, we need to live.”

Sheikh Amin protests the intention to limit the number of worshippers on the Temple Mount during Ramadan.

“They don’t want to let people in. They just want to come and pray. They come to pray at the Temple Mount not to make problems. God willing there will be work during Ramadan for all of us. The leaders above should think about the common people.”

Hatam sits on a step in the market in the Muslim Quarter and seems on the verge of despair. “People are fed up. Now only the extremists are talking. We have no work. We hope it will be better during Ramadan.”

Majid, who says he is one of the veterans of Jerusalem’s Old City market, tries to maintain cautious optimism.

“I was born near the Western Wall. Even when I was a child they told us, ‘Never throw a stone at a Jew.’ We are against attacks and also against what’s happening in Gaza. We want peace. If [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Hamas make peace and return the captives, it will be good for both your side and our side.”

Majid criticizes the Israeli government: “[National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir is making problems. For Muslims, Ramadan is a month of honor and people need to pray. Jews go to the Western Wall, and  Muslims should be able to go to the Al-Aqsa mosque without problems. Ramadan is the most important for Muslims.”

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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