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East Jerusalem Shop Owners Struggle to Stay Afloat (with VIDEO REPORT)

Coronavirus pandemic has many on verge of going under due to bankruptcy

COVID-19 has devastated Jerusalem’s economy, sending hundreds of merchants in the Arab sector scrambling to find ways to survive the crisis.

On Salah Eddin Street, the commercial heart of east Jerusalem and the chief Arab shopping area in the city, one can find all sorts of businesses, from hotels and cafés to clothing stores, groceries and currency exchanges, providing thousands of jobs.

But the strict measures imposed by Israel to curb the spread of the pandemic means that all of these businesses, except the groceries and pharmacies, were closed for almost two months, bringing many closer to bankruptcy. Even with the limited lifting of the lockdown and the ease in restrictions, owners say the season is a total loss.

Hazim Najib, owner of the Abu Samer men’s clothing shop, told The Media Line that the economic hardship was not sustainable.

“It’s crushed commercial life here,” he said. “As it was, Jerusalem was already in a massive economic recession, as there is the Israeli occupation − it’s closed and isolated. It [the lockdown] has greatly affected the economic situation in the Holy City.”

At this time in a normal year, one can barely move on Salah Eddin Street without having to gently ask people to move aside or walk faster. But this year, with just days to go to the end of Ramadan, most shops stand empty.

Under normal circumstances these stores would be overflowing with people buying things to celebrate the end of the holy Muslim month and the Eid al-Fitr feast that caps it, but store owners are seeing only a fraction of the usual business.

Hijazi Rishiq, chairman of the East Jerusalem Merchants’ Committee, said the timing of the pandemic added insult to injury for a city that relies heavily on religious tourism.

“[US President Donald] Trump’s declaration [in December 2017] that Jerusalem is the capital of the occupying power [Israel], which was followed [in January 2020] by the Trump ‘Deal of the Century’ – all of this led to a deterioration in the commercial situation, not to mention a life of misery as a result of the Israeli occupation and its practices on the ground, from exorbitant taxes… and confiscations,” he said.

The Israeli government rejects these accusations, saying it treats all residents of Jerusalem equally.

Adel Abu Rmaileh, owner of a popular juice shop just outside the Old City wall and a member of the Merchants’ Committee, has been selling bottles of specialty drinks for years, and business now is the worst he has ever seen.

“Because of coronavirus and because of the [resulting] closure, the situation is worse than previous years in terms of sales,” he told The Media Line. “But we always say Alhamdulillah [praise be to God]. What else can we say?”

Abu Rmaileh added: “This situation is a cause of devastation for us… but we, as the Jerusalem Merchants Committee, made an appeal to the Islamic Endowments Department, which owns about 420 shops, calling on it to exempt merchants from store rent for this year.”

The department is part of the Waqf, the city’s Muslim religious trust, which is administered by the Jordanian government. King Abdullah II, in his capacity as custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in the city, instructed the Waqf to waive rentals for all its city properties through 2020.