‘He’s a Foolish Man!’: No Love for Trump or U.S. Embassy Festivities in Arab East Jerusalem

Ahead of embassy inauguration in Jerusalem, Palestinians vent anger at the move but show little appetite for protest or violence

Haasan Ashmar at his small store on Salah-ad-Din Street in East Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
Judy Maltz

When Mahmoud Alcam was growing up in East Jerusalem, that part of the city was still under Jordanian rule. As far as he is concerned, Jerusalem never was and never will be the capital of Israel. And who cares what U.S. President Donald Trump thinks?

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“He is a foolish man,” says the elegantly dressed 63-year-old architec, as he waits for a friend on the steps near Damascus Gate, in Jerusalem’s Old City. “But I don’t care about him, because eventually we will come back to all of Palestine – from the river to the sea.”

The U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move its embassy there could delay the process, he concedes. “But eventually, it will happen.”

Mahmoud Alcam, a 63-year-old architect in Jerusalem's Old City. “All the land between the river and the sea is Palestine – not Israel,” he says, “and this is our answer to Trump and what he’s doing.”
Judy Maltz

“All the land between the river and the sea is Palestine – not Israel,” he says, “and this is our answer to Trump and what he’s doing.”

Several hours before the official dedication ceremony marking the embassy move to Jerusalem, there was clearly no rejoicing in the eastern, overwhelmingly Arab half of the city – in sharp contrast to the Jewish areas.

Trump’s decision has been widely criticized by Arab states and U.S. allies as unilateral and endangering peace efforts, by seemingly recognizing only Israel’s right to Jerusalem – a city Palestinians also claim as their capital for a future state.

At the same time, though, neither were there signs of anger or unrest. Despite earlier calls for a general strike by Palestinian leaders, almost all local businesses were open and pedestrian traffic was no lighter than any other midweek morning.

Children made their way to school and Christian pilgrims, retracing Jesus’s last steps, filled the narrow alleys of the Arab market in the Old City, where it was literally business as usual for traders.

East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, and Palestinians today account for about 40 percent of the city’s total population.

Sief Addeen Aroub, a 24-year-old shopkeeper in the Old City, East Jerusalem, May 14, 2018.
Judy Maltz

Many Palestinians begged off when approached for comment about the embassy move, saying either that the situation was too “complicated” or that they didn’t have many thoughts on the subject.

But 24-year-old Sief Addeen Aroub, a shopkeeper in the Arab market, was unusually upfront. “The Palestinians do not accept this decision by the United States,” he says, sitting outside his shop waiting for customers. “It doesn’t make sense that a small child like Donald Trump can decide something like this. This country was always Palestine, and it is for Muslims and Christians only.”

Aroub’s shop specializes in clothing and accessories made with traditional Palestinian embroidery, as well as Holy Land souvenirs. Along with the “I Love Palestine” mugs on display outside the shop are T-shirts bearing the names of the Philadelphia Phillies and the UCLA Bruins in Hebrew. After all, even hard-liners like him need to earn a living.

'This city belonged neither to Jews nor Arabs'

Haasan Ashmar has been selling women’s lingerie and scarves from his tiny store on Salah-ad-Din Street – the main shopping drag in East Jerusalem – for the past 40 years. He describes his mood as “sad” on the morning of the embassy move.

“Until now, this city belonged neither to the Jews nor the Arabs,” he says. “By moving the embassy, the Americans are saying this city belongs to the Jews.”

Ashmar, who acknowledges that he has never been a great fan of American presidents, has particularly harsh words for this one. “He’s a zero!” he says.

And what does he expect will happen as a result of the move? “Nothing,” he responds, just as bluntly. “There won’t be war and there won’t be peace – and we’re already used to that.”

Majd Ahmed (not his real name), who runs one of the many money-changing shops on this street, was somewhat more pessimistic. “I think the embassy move will affect the peace process badly,” he says. “It was a stupid move that has no justification.”

“Why would they do this at such a time, instead of making both parties come back to the table to negotiate?” he wonders.

Ahmed concedes, however, that most Arab residents of this city seem more inclined to take the move in their stride than vent in the streets.

Asked if he will be attending the protests scheduled outside the site of the embassy later on Monday, the 25-year-old responds: “I have work to do until 6 [P.M.]. But if I could I would, and my heart is with the protesters.”

Adam, who asked that his full name not be published, is visiting a friend who runs a clothing store across the street. Dressed in an expensive jacket and shoes, he volunteers that he divides his time between East Jerusalem and Italy, where he is completing his doctoral studies in international relations and human rights.

From his relative outsider’s perspective, Adam describes the embassy move as “a lot of fuss and not really important.

“There was a U.S. Consulate here for a long time,” he continues. “Changing its names doesn’t mean very much.”

For Palestinians, says Adam, the embassy move is merely the latest in a long line of events dating back to the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe,” which is how Palestinians refer to Israel’s establishment in 1948), which has left them with “a bitter taste and a sense that there is nothing that can be done.”

'Creates tensions in the city'

Imran Bakri standing outside his shop at the Arab market in East Jerusalem.
Hagar Shezaf

Imran Bakri isn’t finding much to celebrate, even though it’s his 40th birthday today. “I’m not a political person,” he says, standing outside his family-owned lighting shop in the Arab market, “but I’m not feeling good today.”

It may not have been the intention, he says, but the embassy move will affect him and his family directly. “It creates tensions in this city, and when there are tensions people don’t want to come to the Old City.”

Sitting behind the cash register at her stationery and toy store on Salah-ad-Din Street, Rula Nasser is remarkably blasé. “For me, it doesn’t make a difference whether the embassy is in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem,” says the 44-year-old mother of four.

If and how it will affect the peace process, she says, is still too early to predict. “People have lots of different opinions based on their experiences,” she says. “But for me, as a mother, what’s most important is that my kids get a good education and are treated equally.”

Rula Nasser in her stationery and toy store on Salah-ad-Din Street in East Jerusalem.
Hagar Shezaf