Behind the Headlines: Tourist Boom in the Old City Barometer of Peace Benefits

The Old City’s Arab market was one of the first venues to feel the effects of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, at its onset in December 1987.

Nearly six years later, the Arab shuk is again a barometer of the political climate, as Israelis and Palestinians begin to work together to achieve peace.

Embracing most of the Old City, the shuk was a main tourist attraction until the start of the intifada. Then shopkeepers began a series of strikes in support of the uprising.

The action gained worldwide media attention, and served as a tool in the fight for Palestinian self-determination.

Yet while the strikes proved immensely effective from a political perspective, the financial results were catastrophic. Forced by conscience or threats from armed Palestinian youths to padlock their shops every afternoon and on full-strike days, Arab merchants lost millions of dollars in tourist sales.

Those tourists who did venture into the market risked being stoned or, on rare occasions, stabbed. Most Israelis stopped visiting the Old City altogether.

Now, just weeks after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Gaza-Jericho autonomy plan, the Arab market is showing signs of recovery.

The most obvious sign is the increased presence of tourists.

“There are definitely more people in the shuk, more tourists, and it’s having a positive effect on business,” Bahaei Barakat, an antiquities dealer, said as he sat on a stool outside his shop.

“Before the intifada, the tour guides would leave one day for shopping at the end of each tour, and they would usually bring their tourists to the shuk,” Barakat said. “Once the intifada began, the guides began to take them shopping in Bethlehem or west Jerusalem instead.”

‘IT’S SAFE TO VISIT THE SHUK’

The scion of a family that owns several antiquities stores around the world, Barakat opened a shop in western Jerusalem when his shop in the shuk began to fail.

“We’re still not making much money yet,” he said, pointing to his empty store in the middle of a busy alley. “It will take awhile before people realize that the stores are open and that it’s safe to visit the shuk.”

Though business is not exactly booming for Majdi Shwiki, the owner of a booth selling T-shirts and various souvenirs, he too expressed optimism that business is on the rebound.

An affable man with a ready smile, Shwiki affirmed that more tourists began visiting the shuk in September, immediately after the peace agreement was signed in Washington.

One tangible result of the agreement has been the emergence of Palestinian T-shirts and key chains in stores throughout eastern Jerusalem and the territories.

Though Palestinian flags are still technically outlawed by the Israeli government, this has not stopped shopkeepers from selling souvenirs with the Palestinian colors — red, white, green and black. There are hand-sewn shirts in the design of the Palestinian flag and a flag key chain with the words “I Love Palestine.”

“Things are much better since the peace proposal, and I’m not only talking about business,” said Shwiki, gazing over at the Israeli border policeman sitting on a stool just outside the shop.

“During the past few weeks we’ve had a much better rapport with the soldiers, and they are treating us better as well,” the merchant said.

“You see that soldier there? He went and got himself something to eat and he asked me if I wanted anything. He brought me a sandwich.

“Before, we had problems with the soldiers. They rounded up the teen-agers. Now, we talk, converse. We’re in a test period right now, and I think that if we Palestinians want peace, we have to do something to help ourselves, ” Shwiki said.

‘REALLY FEEL THE DIFFERENCE’

“We really feel the difference,” confirmed Haim, the policeman keeping watch outside Shwiki’s shop.

“Until recently, the border police played more of a role as soldiers than as police. Now, the storekeepers offer us tea and something to eat, and there is less tension overall,” he said.

“Another indicator that things are improving is the fact that Israelis are starting to walk through the shuk again after so many years,” the policeman said.

One example was an Israeli who identified himself as Yair, who had brought a couple of German friends to the market.

“While I was never really afraid to go to the shuk,” he said, “the thought that something bad could happen was at the back of my mind. My friends are visiting from overseas, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to show them around.”

Reiner Kaiser of Berlin said he was enjoying the aromas and sights of the market’s alleys, but that he “wouldn’t have come without an Israeli. I would have waited awhile, to see what happens.”

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