Jerusalem Gets Petty With Muslim Quarter Merchants

Inspectors whip out rulers to measure displays, issue steep fines in campaign seen as harassment.

The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 6, 2015.
The Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, Oct. 6, 2015. Olivier Fitoussi

City inspectors accompanied by police officers conducted an enforcement campaign in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City on Wednesday, issuing fines and warnings over infractions that store owners say were never enforced before.

Several cafes in the quarter received fines of 5,000 shekels ($1,300) for failing to post no-smoking signs, while shoe and souvenir shops were given warnings for displays that protruded more than 40 centimeters from the entrance.

The inspections are presumably part of a crackdown on Palestinian neighborhoods in response to the wave of terror attacks in the city. Similar campaigns were conducted in the summer of 2014, when Palestinian residents were ticketed for never-enforced offenses such as public urination, spitting the hulls of sunflower seeds in the street and failing to properly secure rooftop solar hot-water heaters.

Wednesday morning Ashur Jawals opened his café for the first time in two weeks. It’s on Hagai Street, very near to where Nehemia Lavi and Aharon Bennett were murdered October 3. Several neighboring store owners were arrested for failing to aid the victims, who were stabbed by an Arab assailant. They were released, but their stores were ordered closed for two weeks.

Shortly after the cafe reopened, two inspectors, accompanied by five police officers, entered and issued a 5,000-shekel fine, to be paid within 90 days, for the absence of no-smoking signs.

Jawals, who has run the café for decades, said he’d never even been asked to post such signs, much less fined for failing to do so.

“Look how they’re sticking it to people, why are we to blame?” asked one of the workers. “It’s harassment, they never came to us with fines about smoking,” added Ihab Barkat, owner of the City of Peace cafe, down the street.

The inspectors continued on to shoe and souvenir shops, where they measured the outdoor displays with a ruler and ordered store owners to bring their goods to within the prescribed distance from the storefront.

“You know that no one has come into the store for a week,” one of the merchants told the police officers. “This isn’t my decision, it’s a government decision,” a female officer told him in response.

Most of the stores on Hagai Street were still closed Wednesday. The merchants who have been open report a sharp drop in sales because of the security situation. “Over the past 12 days I’ve sold about 10 shekels’ worth,” said Abd al-Fatah, who owns an antique and souvenir shop.

Some city inspectors were issued anti-stab vests Wednesday. “The municipality conducts regular enforcement campaigns throughout the city, throughout the year,” the municipality said in a statement.