The Times – 30 March 2002
TRADITIONAL Easter celebrations in Jerusalem were eclipsed yesterday by the sight of Israeli police launching baton charges, firing stun grenades and chasing Muslim worshippers through the streets of the Old City after Friday prayers.
The thousands of Christians who normally gather for Easter services in the Old City, which contains all the stations of the Cross and the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected, were absent. The few pilgrims who did venture out were outnumbered by heavily armed Israeli police.
Two years ago the city hosted tens of thousands of foreign visitors for the Easter celebrations. But the soldiers’ flak jackets, rifles and batons were warning enough of the mood of fear that has strangled tourism to Israel.
Unlike West Jerusalem, the Jewish section of the city which has suffered a spate of suicide bombings, the Old City in Arab East Jerusalem has experienced almost no problems since the initial burst of violence at the Haram al-Sharif — the Temple Mount — after Ariel Sharon’s visit in September 2000, which sparked the intifada. But the hotels and hostels that attracted religious and secular visitors are either struggling to stay in business or are closed.
The Tabasco Hostel, once one of the most popular backpacking hangouts in the city, has shut its five dormitories which hold 80 beds. The owner, Ashraf Masoudi, says that on some days he is lucky to have two or three private rooms occupied. “The city is dead. There are no tourists,” he said. “The people who come here are foreigners working in Tel Aviv, Netanya or Haifa looking for a weekend break.”
He added: “Other owners are just giving up. It makes no difference whether you close rooms — you still have to pay the same taxes and rent for the building.”
Tours to nearby attractions have also suffered. Once half a dozen coaches would congregate each day at Damascus Gate before dawn to take tourists to watch the sun rise over Masada, the ancient fortress site where hundreds of Jewish zealots were massacred by the Roman Army. Now every fortnight or so enough visitors book to justify laying on a minibus. Tours north to Christian sites such as Nazareth and Tiberias have been cancelled for many months.
One tour guide, Riad Abu Sirrayh, says that he has had no work since late 2000. “It is just impossible to make a living any more. The whole city depended on tourists. Things are desperate,” he said.
The narrow alleys in the market are still busy. But now they are filled almost exclusively with Arabs from East Jerusalem shopping for cheap clothes, toiletries and sweets. Many of the souvenir shops are closed.
The large Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s burial and home to a dazzling array of Christian sects, will be the focus of much of this weekend’s Easter activity. But it will be a very private affair. Yesterday, on Good Friday, the square outside the church was almost empty, and inside just the odd visitor was working through the labyrinth of grottos and chapels.
One tourist, Claire Perez, 27, from Hampstead, London, said she was in Israel visiting friends in Tel Aviv. She wanted to see the Old City at Easter but was planning to stay for only a day. “I was really surprised how few people are here,” she said. “I heard that this time last year, there were thousands in the church. It underlines how dangerous it is to be here. With all these bus bombs, it is very frightening just moving between places.”
Elias Habbash, 22, a Catholic scout, was among the local Christian population that turned out for an Easter parade along the Via Dolorosa, the route along which Jesus carried his cross after being sentenced to death. “There were maybe three or four foreigners with us,” he said. “The turnout was so disappointing.”
According to official figures, the number of tourists to the Holy Land fell from 2.7 million in 2000 to 1.2 million last year. If the trend continues, this year will be far worse.
Mr Sharon has taken charge of the tourism portfolio after Binyamin Elon, the extreme right-wing Tourism Minister, resigned from the Government earlier this month. The collapse of tourism is contributing to the country’s worst recession in years.