City Hall Cracks Down on Smoking of Water Pipes in East Jerusalem

'They chose the wrong time for this campaign. The city started the campaign as if it were a war,' says local hotel manager.

People smoke water pipes in an East Jerusalem cafe.
Tess Scheflan

Jerusalem city hall is striving to enforce its laws against smoking in East Jerusalem, but business owners there say smoking a water pipe or cigarettes is an integral part of the experience in many places and they have never been asked to enforce the ban before.

Fines and the ban are bringing a number of stores to the verge of closing, the business owners said.

A month ago, municipal inspectors visited Mohammed Abu Ranem’s cafe in the A-Tur neighborhood on the Mount of Olives. His family has run the place for 55 years, and Abu Ranem says the family has never been asked to enforce the anti-smoking laws.

The inspectors gave the owner a 5,000-shekel ($1,280) fine; another 1,000-shekel fine was slapped on a customer caught smoking at the cafe.

“Ten days ago city inspectors were here and told us to bring in the chairs from outside,” said Khaled Abu Safitan, who works at the cafe. “They didn’t say anything about narghiles, so it’s impossible to light up outside and it’s impossible inside. People really stopped coming; once there was 500 shekels a day, now it’s not even at 200.”

On Tuesday, the owners told him he was being fired because there wasn’t enough work.

In another case, an inspector fined Amjad Gulani’s clothing store on A-Zahara Street. Gulani does not smoke and never has, and he even forbids his customers to smoke inside the store.

But three weeks ago a passerby asked a customer in the store for a light, and the customer obliged. Gulani says the lighter was outside the store and the man went on his way. A few seconds later an inspector showed up and gave Gulani a 1,000-shekel fine.

The new policy started soon after the outbreak of the latest wave of violence in the city at the beginning of October. The first to suffer were the businesses on Hagai Street in the Old City, where many of the stabbings and attempted stabbings have taken place.

The city decided to make things tougher for businesses and cafes, so inspectors started handing out fines for, for example, placing goods outside stores on the sidewalks, and for not hanging signs prohibiting smoking inside.

From there the new enforcement policy spread to the rest of East Jerusalem. Shop owners say the policy of fining them has come at a particularly tough time with a steep drop in tourism in the city, especially the eastern half. Also, the enforcement started without any warning, and without taking into consideration the special situation of the Old City’s buildings, many of which have no way of providing separate smoking sections.

Raed Sa’adi, the manager of the Jerusalem Hotel north of the Damascus Gate, does not remember the smoking laws ever being an issue, even though the hotel has been in business since 1950. Two weeks ago the hotel received a 1,000-shekel fine after a customer was caught smoking in the garden.

“We have a separate smoking area and we have a ventilation system. We want to obey the law. We lost a great number of customers now, the October season was ruined and Christmas was ruined, the hotel is empty of tourists. The only alternative are local residents and they don’t go out to eat,” he said.

“They come to smoke and if it’s impossible to smoke we’ll close. They chose the wrong time for this campaign. The city started the campaign as if it were a war; they should talk to us, explain things to us.”

The Jerusalem municipality has presented data showing that in the past month it has handed out 20 violations for smoking in East Jerusalem, compared with 47 in the western part of the city.

The city said it “is not implementing a new policy, because there is no new policy. The city is required to enforce the national law of preventing smoking in public places, as it always has.”

According to the city, “Narghiles are a smoking implement that is banned by law and that is why enforcement is being carried out in a similar manner to the enforcement against smoking in other public places such as Teddy Stadium, the central bus station, malls and other places.”