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Jerusalem city center struggles to survive

Downtown Jerusalem´s Jaffa Road is seen through the shattered window of a city bus shortly after a Palestinian terrorist blew herself up Sunday. (Brian Hendler)

Downtown Jerusalem´s Jaffa Road is seen through the shattered window of a city bus shortly after a Palestinian terrorist blew herself up Sunday. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 28 (JTA) — Eight recent terror attacks in the heart of downtown Jerusalem have reduced a bustling economic zone to an economic no-man´s land. On Sunday, a Palestinian woman exploded a bomb near the crossroads of Jaffa Road and King George Street, killing an elderly man and injuring more than 125 people. The force of the blast shattered the glass storefronts of 60 shops and sent merchandise ranging from diapers to diamond rings flying across shop floors. As usual in Jerusalem, life returned to a tense normality on Monday. Pedestrians crunched on glass as they made their way past police barricades and battered stores that looked like beaten, toothless boxers. Whatever bloodstains and bits of flesh remained after the cleaning crew´s sandblasters had passed were washed away by the heavy winter rains. In an effort to revive downtown Jerusalem´s economy, Mayor Ehud Olmert held discussions Monday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Silvan Shalom on possible rescue plans for Jaffa Road, the city´s main thoroughfare. Olmert demanded that businesses in the city center receive discounts on property tax or sales tax exemptions. Olmert also asked Sharon to provide Jerusalem residents with "income tax points" similar to those given to Negev and Galilee residents. But for many with businesses in the heart of the city, the effort comes too late. "For many of us, business is no longer profitable," said Zion Barsheshe, leaning heavily on the counter of the Coffee Time cafe. Barsheshe used to employ more than 60 people in his three stores near Zion Square, at the bottom of the Ben Yehuda Street pedestrian mall. "Now I have five people working here. I´ve paid $350,000 out of my own pocket to keep these places afloat since the intifada started" in September 2000, he said. "But now the banks are breathing down my neck, and I´ve had to close one of the places. "Hell, I don´t even let my own children come down here, so how can I expect tourists to come?" he asked. Filling in for his boss, Micky Levy — who suffered a massive heart attack after the bombing — Jerusalem´s deputy police commander, Ilan Franco, tried to soothe shopkeepers´ frayed nerves on Monday. Undercover and regular police are "maximally deployed in order to prevent another attack in this hard-hit area," Franco said on a visit to downtown. Due to continued warnings of attacks, there seemed to be more border police patrolling the streets on Monday than customers. Soldiers armed with M-16s and wearing neon yellow winter gear prowled the rooftops of buildings, looking down upon what has become known as "the terrorists´ intersection" at the corner of Jaffa Road and King George Street. "Our preventive actions today are the same as they have been for some time," Franco said. "There is almost nothing we can do to stop terror without a buffer separating" Jerusalem "from the West Bank." However, he told JTA that in addition to bolstering Jerusalem police forces with five new companies, the police and government are considering building a wall some seven miles long that would separate eastern and western Jerusalem. They also would set up checkpoints and use sensitive electronic equipment to detect infiltrators from one side of the city to the other. The plan was to be presented to the government on Tuesday. If implemented, it would constitute the first division of Jerusalem since 1967 — and would contradict a generation of Israeli leaders who have pledged that the "unified" capital will never again be divided. In Jerusalem last year, there were 66 attacks that left 33 people dead and 513 wounded, according to Police Commissioner Shlomo Aharonishky. Like many of his competitors, Barsheshe invested huge sums in his stores in the midst of the peace process euphoria and in preparation for the year 2000, expecting hordes of tourists to descend upon Jerusalem. But that gamble failed when the Palestinians turned to violence and streets once packed year-round with tourists became deserted. Consequently, many storeowners whose rents and property taxes have risen in the past year and a half are now mired in debt. The blank storefronts dotting Jaffa Road show how many have closed up shop. The municipality hopes cultural events can draw tourists and locals to the downtown area. "We are also helping them finance their debt payments, which is about all we can do considering the current recession," Deputy Mayor Yigal Ademi said. Barsheshe scoffed at the plan. He condemned both the government´s inability to thwart the frequent terror attacks and, concurrently, the municipality´s decision in recent months to raise property taxes by 8 percent. "Now you tell me," Barsheshe asked, "how is that supposed to help me recover my losses?" In a conspiratorial whisper, Barsheshe confided that not a day goes by that he does not think of leaving Jerusalem for America. To Zion Hasid, however, property taxes don´t matter. His sole attention is focused on rebuilding Babah, his women´s clothing store, which on Monday morning was cluttered with shards of glass and a coating of ash. "This is hell, but where else will I go?" asked Hasid, who immigrated from Iran 30 years ago. "I will open the store for business as soon as I can," he said, scratching his white head underneath a Greek fisherman´s cap. "Not that that means I´ll sell anything." Standing beside Hasid, Mashiach Yazdi was directing contractors and insurance appraisers in and out of stores. Head of the Finance Ministry´s Department of Hate Crimes, Yazdi and his team are responsible for cleaning up, rebuilding and reimbursing storeowners for damages incurred in terror attacks. "In days like this my job is mostly to act as a psychologist," he said. "More than anything it is our duty to assure those who have lost everything that there is hope and that the government will ensure that they will be on their feet in no time." After taking stock of the store, Yazdi turned to Hasid, held him by both shoulders and asked him if he wanted the government to restore his damaged goods or order new ones. Then, as the contractor and appraiser marched out of Hasid´s store, Yazdi uttered words seldom heard by insurance appraisers. "What you want, you can keep," he said. "We´ ll do it anyway you want, just tell me." The damage to the 60 stores in the attack amounted to some $2.5 million, Yazdi said, one of the largest sums in recent months. Cleaning and construction crews, paid for by the government and insurance companies, will require at least a week to "get this street back to normal," a task that normally takes just one day after a terror attack. It will take longer this time because the bomb used was so powerful and because it exploded in an open area. It´s not only businesses whose storefronts are blown apart that are affected by terror here. According to the daily Yediot Achronot, fully half of the tourism employees in Jerusalem have been fired, hotels are at less than 30 percent occupancy and store owners have seen income plummet by more than 80 percent since the intifada began almost a year and a half ago. So great is the damage done to Jerusalem´s tourism industry that a group of 55 Israeli hotels decided to sue the Palestinian Authority for hundreds of millions of dollars for intifada losses. The group´s lawyer, Yehuda Raveh, believes the hotels have a good chance of winning the case — and obtaining the damages from P.A. tax money frozen by the Israeli government. In addition, Israel´s Association of Hotels negotiated a deal with the Finance Ministry in December under which the government and municipality will each pay a third of every hotel´s property tax. However, the plan has not yet come into effect to cushion the economic blow, association spokeswoman Na´ama Gur said. And, from here, who knows how things will develop. "The worst part is that no one thinks it will end soon," Barsheshe said. "We are not talking weeks or months, but years — generations."

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