Jaffa Gate: Israeli commercial and tourist center beneath the Jerusalem Citadel
Palestinians: the project will change the character of the Old City
Occupied Jerusalem: -- Palestinian experts and officials are warning of the dangerous repercussions of an Israeli project aimed at changing the landmarks and character of Jaffa Gate and the Omar Bin Khattab Square in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The project, which is currently under construction by Israeli Jerusalem municipal teams and the Israeli Antiquities Authority, involves excavations beneath the western wall of the historical Jerusalem Citadel, which includes the Nabi Daoud Mosque. A market and tourist and commercial center will be built belowground at the site, aimed at attracting commercial and tourist activity and diverting entrance into the Old City to Jaffa Gate by connecting it to Jaffa Street and Jewish centers in the western sector of occupied Jerusalem.
Renowned settlement expert, Khalil Tufakji says the Jaffa Gate project is part of an even more comprehensive project to alter the landmarks and character of the area, especially Omar Bin Khattab Square. He explains that this area in particular leads into the Old City, namely the Armenian Quarter and the Sharaf, or Jewish Quarter, where settlement build-up in the Old City is concentrated. Around 3,000 settlers live in this quarter in addition to the hundreds of settlers and yeshiva students distributed among dozens of other properties taken over from Palestinian Jerusalemites.
“We are talking about a huge tourist project in this area, which is slated to be completed in 2022; the construction and bulldozers are already in place,” Tujaki says.
The project includes the establishment of open arenas, markets and commercial and tourist centers along with an underground museum, so that tourists and Jews can reach Jaffa Gate through several nearby, glassed-in courts and tourist rest-stops. Through its Antiquities Authority, the Israeli government earmarked a budget of ILS40 million for the project, which is being implemented by the “Clore Israel Foundation.”
Jerusalemites fear this Israeli project will result in an even worse slump in commercial and tourist activity in the Old City, which already suffers from an almost complete commercial standstill. This recession only worsened with the coronavirus pandemic, which forced many Jerusalemite merchants to close their shops in search of other means of livelihood for their families.
Walid Dajani is manager of the Imperial Hotel in Jaffa Gate, whose family has been fighting a legal battle for over two decades with settlement associations that claim ownership of the hotel, which is originally the property of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Dajani warned of the demographic ramifications of these developments in this area, especially on the Palestinian Christian presence in the Old City, which is currently only 1% of the population of 40,000 residents.
Previous estimates indicate a 5% rise in Jerusalemite shops closed during the pandemic and due to Israeli taxes. Overall, 350 shops in the Old City have been forced to close over the years and turned into alternative workspaces. This was confirmed by head of the Jerusalemite merchants’ committee and former secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, Hijazi Risheq, who said the situation in the Old City in particular was dire. Everyday, he contends, shopkeepers and merchants lose money due to the recession, a situation which is exacerbated by restrictive and Israeli measures including on movement, for people coming to the Old City.
Meanwhile, Tony Khashram, head of Holy Land Tourism, said Israel was looking to turn Jaffa Gate into the “Mecca” of Jewish pilgrims worldwide. He explains how Orthodox and extremist Jews in Jerusalem are in control of capital and have considerable sway in the politics of the city, investing large amounts of money into Jewish religious sites in the Old City. In contrast, Christian and Islamic sites are unimportant to them. “Jaffa Gate is the easiest entryway into the Old City for Jews from West Jerusalem to the Buraq [Western] Wall, on foot, by car or other means of future transportation,” Kashram explains.
Commenting on the current project at Jaffa Gate, Khashram says: “As for the future of commercial activity in the Old City, I think it will continue to be very weak, because it depends on Christian and Islamic and not Jewish tourism.”
Khashram explains that 2019 saw the highest number of Christian and Muslim tourists since 1948, constituting 35% of the total number of tourists who entered the holy land from all crossings. The other 65% were Jewish foreigners.
The current projects being carried out in Jerusalem cannot be separated from the crux of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, especially in regards to the narrative. Khashram maintains, “Everyone knows that Jews inside and outside of Israel have not stopped for one day since 1948 to promote the idea of building Solomon’s Temple. We, in the tourism sector, hear it all the time from tourists and we know how much money Israel collects from other countries and Jewish organizations abroad for the sake of their settlement projects in the city. This money funds all of the tourism service providers and contractors and all of the other Jewish-owned economic sectors in Jerusalem.”
Money utilizes to enhance the demographic settlement presence in the Old City is not limited to Israeli government-funded projects, all of which look to achieve one goal, which is the Judaization of Jerusalem in its entirety, but extends to other sources, particularly the millions of dollars flowing into these projects from the likes of American-Jewish millionaire Irving Moskowitz. He finances settlement associations with an annual ILS100 million, constituting a main source of funding for their activities, aimed at taking over Jerusalemite properties in the Old City, Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah. Thanks to his money, two settlement neighborhoods were established in Ras Al Amoud, named “Ma'ale HaZeitim” and another in the heart of Sheikh Jarrah named the “Moskowitz Quarter”, which was built on the ruins of the Shepherd Hotel.