peddler - Emil Salman - 28122011
A bread-seller at the Old City’s Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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For 25 years, Ihsan Knaan, a resident of Silwan, has been selling the elongated bread known as baygele, accompanied by falafel and a pinch of the herb za'atar inside a twist of newspaper from a cart at Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. He says he has tried to obtain a license from the municipality since he began, and never managed to do so.

His business depends on the delicate balance between sales and the fines he pays regularly to the city. He remembers their evolution perfectly. "First it was NIS 30, then NIS 70, then NIS 150 ... and now it stands at NIS 475," he told Haaretz this week.

Knaan had barely finished his sentence when a uniformed municipal inspector came by and after brief deliberations wrote up a ticket, Knaan's third since Saturday. "Peddling baygele from a moveable cart without written permission from the municipality," it said.

Knaan is not alone in this clash with the city. Although carts selling baygele, corn on the cob and tamarind juice have always been part of the Old City landscape, in recent years cart owners have been unable to obtain permission from the municipality and, in effect, they are all working illegally, accruing fines and even jail time.

The city says it needs time to organize. Meanwhile, the peddlers' debts pile up and an important part of the Old City experience is likely to disappear.

Knaan's accumulated tickets represent hundreds of thousands of shekels. Two months ago, after a warrant was issued for his arrest, he reached a payment agreement with the city. The total fine of NIS 140,000 was halved and divided into installments. But Knaan could not keep up with the payments. Meanwhile, the city continues to write tickets for his three-wheeled cart.

"Four years ago, a judge said that he would cancel all my debts if I stopped working. I told him I could not stop because this is how I make a living for me and my children. Instead of taking this into consideration, he slapped me with a NIS 6,000 fine. I want to take out a license, I don't want to break the law, but I'm always told that I can't. I wasn't taught to steal; this is what I know how to do."

His colleagues in this line of work suffer from repeated fines barely covered by their daily take. Another peddler from Jaffa Gate, Zaki Sabah, served a year in jail because of his inability to pay fines. Today, his debt stands at NIS 330,000.

Old City peddlers have no real alternative, since it has not been possible to take out peddling licenses for the last three years, according to instructions handed down by the city's legal adviser, after a court decided that some of the carts (mainly in the western sector of the city ) had become established and turned into unauthorized permanent kiosks. And the committee appointed to formulate recommendations on the matter has yet to finish its work, while the peddlers continue to be fined.

In recent weeks, the municipality says it has begun issuing licenses and 15 peddlers have had their licenses renewed. The city, it appears, has begun to institute strict rules in an area that is undisciplined by its very nature. So, for example, the municipality is attempting to enforce one model of cart, fixed stations for their storage at night and exacting limitations on location and type of merchandise.

"What bothers me is the rigidity of the system in this case," says City Councilman Meir Margalit (Meretz ). "Even someone who sells tamarind juice from a large thermos on his shoulders, part of the Jaffa Gate landscape, will now be asked to take out a license. Meanwhile, I don't see the municipality dealing with industrialists and owners of large hotels. Somehow it's the peddlers who keep the municipality awake at night?"

The municipality responded that it is "currently working intensively on a new policy for peddlers. It is expected that a pilot program will be launched soon. Every peddler must have a peddler's license to sell his wares in the city. A peddler who decides to work without a license and break the law may expect to be fined according to the law. Mr. Ishaan has never had a license, and his request was rejected by the licensing committee. Until new policies are adopted on this matter, the licensing authorities do not intend to issue new licenses."