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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 21:12 GMT 22:12 UK
Jerusalem's deserted streets
The Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem
The streets of Jerusalem are deserted at night
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By Jonny Dymond
In Jerusalem
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From the outside the restaurant looks shut. The door emits no light, dark red iron shutters cover the windows, only a small handwritten note betrays any sign of life: Please knock for entry.

Fink, one of Israel's oldest restaurants is open for business. Knock on the door and it slowly swings open. The waiter shrugs, slightly embarrassed. "Security," he says.

Inside it looks like a Polish emigre's haunt in Paris: dark wood, the walls covered with obscure cartoons, a bar full of drinks, famous and infamous. But it is virtually deserted at eight in the evening on a Tuesday night.

Jerusalem skyline
Three years ago, the city was heaving with tourists
Its regular customers are staying at home, the tourists who flock to it are not visiting, even the journalists who once sat drinking until the small hours at its wooden bar are staying away.

"Dead", says the proprietor, Moulli Azrierli, with a dry laugh, "it's dead. We won't open the door unless we can see your face".

"We've put up the iron shutters on the windows that we took down when the British left Israel. How can you run a restaurant when people can't even see inside it?"

He says that business is down by 80%.

And he has stories from the rest of the hotel and restaurant trade that illustrate what a ghost town central Jerusalem has become: One hotel which has 400 beds and only 10 people visiting it; a restaurateur who locks up at seven in the evening and, in Mr Azrierli's words, runs home.

Bustling city

Jerusalem is changed almost beyond recognition. Three years ago, at a time of relative peace it heaved with tourists.

Every cliche of a city that was home to three great religions was visible - convoys of nuns, orthodox Jews hurrying to prayer, messianics and tour groups.

On warm evenings the pedestrianised Ben Yehuda street seemed like a slice of modern Israel and beyond.

Lined with restaurants and shops, it bustled until after midnight, music and neon blaring as people dawdled in the street eating slices of pizza and licking at ice creams.

Tourists strolled holding hands or arm-in-arm, fresh from a day's sightseeing in the Old City, a 15-minute walk away.

Last night there were four people on Ben Yehuda street - in uniform, sitting in their army jeep, which straddled the road. Otherwise it was deserted.

Atmosphere of suspicion

Walking up Jaffa Road was a similarly eerie experience: on one of the main arteries from the Old City to the rest of Jerusalem there were just two other people walking around.


Bags are searched over and over again. Restaurants that once left their doors open on warm spring evenings have buzzers for patrons to push and gain entry

A falafel cafe, its bright fluorescent lights bouncing off its white walls, was fuller. Workers coming off shift were grabbing some food before going home.

But they sat motionless, all staring at the television, as news of the deaths of 13 Israeli soldiers was broadcast.

It is not just the fact that the place is deserted, an atmosphere of suspicion surrounds everyone and everything.

To stop in the street and look at an address book attracts attention, a police car slows across the street.

Worst is when a police car or ambulance goes past with lights flashing and sirens whooping.

In the street people don't want to turn round, it betrays their fears. But it is impossible not to look around and wonder.

Normality has disappeared from everyday life.

Reassurance

The chemist has a security guard, the electronics shop has security guard, the bus station has a security guard.

Bags are searched over and over again. Restaurants that once left their doors open on warm spring evenings have buzzers for patrons to push and gain entry.

Damage from suicide bomb in Jersualem
Security is tight as residents fear more attacks
All of it is designed with one thing in mind - to stop the suicide bombers who have ravaged the cities of Israel - and reassure the customers that they can shop and eat in safety.

But none of it will bring the tourists back. And Israel's citizens seem to have found a new way of living, avoiding the public places which attract the bombers.

Their fears are all too understandable. But the thriving Jerusalem of three years ago now seems like a distant place, in another country.

See also:

12 Apr 02 | Middle East
Israel says campaign not over
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
In pictures: Haifa bus bomb
10 Apr 02 | Middle East
Suicide bomb fears haunt Israelis
16 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel's stay-at-home culture
29 Mar 02 | Middle East
Eyewitness: Jerusalem supermarket bomb
21 Mar 02 | Middle East
Israel's history of bomb blasts
02 Dec 01 | profiles
Who are the suicide bombers?
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