A supermarket in the Gush Etzion area south of Jerusalem has nearby settlers worried it will not only threaten local businesses, but also lead to romantic relationships between Jews and Arabs.

The megastore of supermarket chain Rami Levy at Gush Junction is provoking fierce emotion in the settlement bloc over concern for local shops and the store's easy accessibility for both settlers and Palestinians.

The supermarket also employs both Arabs and Jews, which opponents say makes it a breeding ground for unholy romantic relationships.

Sheli Bloom, of Efrat, has run a clothing store in her settlement's commercial center for nearly 15 years. The store managed well even when the security situation was at its worst, attracting many customers who preferred staying close to home over a drive to Jerusalem.

But Bloom said she will be closing her doors in a few months, as the Rami Levy megastore - complete with a supermarket, pizza and hamburger eateries and a clothing store all its own - has scooped up most of the clientele. Other small businesses in the area may follow suit.

"The supermarket shocked local business, and that's disturbing," said Efrat council head Oded Ravivi. "I get calls from business owners who fear they might shut down because of Rami Levy, and other calls from people happy that we finally have a proper supermarket. I'm trying to find a balance."

Rabbis are being asked to take a stand on the issue.

"Thanks to the Rami Levy store in our area, I'm able to buy the same products I bought at the local grocer's at a considerably lower cost," one Gush Etzion resident wrote on the Kippa religious community Internet forum. "But I'm facing a dilemma. On the one hand, I want to enjoy the benefits of the market, and purchase products at the lowest possible cost. On the other hand, am I committed to protecting the local grocer? Do I continue shopping at his store?"

Rabbi Yuval Sharlo responded to the post saying a balance should be found. "It would seem to me that the right thing to do is to divide up your shopping, and in a kind of a compromise buy one-third of the products from the local grocer, and two-thirds at the large supermarket," he wrote.

Rami Levy himself, the owner of the supermarket chain, didn't sound particularly overwrought. "I lost three to four percent of circulation in my Talpiot store after I opened one in Gush Etzion," he said. "In any event, 85 percent of residents spend their money in Jerusalem, and now they are staying in Gush Etzion."

"Twelve years ago, when I wanted to open stores [near] Modi'in, the local grocers united against me and fought with a lawyer," he continued. "I told them, folks, all the people here go shopping in Tel Aviv because you charge too much. My supermarket will keep shoppers in Modi'in. Half a year [after my store opened], one of the grocers called me and said, Rami, you were right, the money does stay in the city."

Bagging dates

But local businesses are not the only ones concerned. Right-wing activists and rabbis claim that because both Arab and Jewish shoppers frequent the store, and that it employs both Arab and Jewish workers, this creates fertile ground for cross-national romance.

"It's not a supermarket, it's a giant match-making enterprise," said Naomi Brochi of Efrat, who is helping to lead the local campaign against the store. "I hear about good ultra-Orthodox girls going out with Arabs. The Arabs pretend to be Jewish, love conquers all, and then the girls get [hurt]. I personally don't shop at those match-making centers. The cashier girls are Jewish, the workers are Arab - and you have love blooming."

Rabbi Gideon Perl of nearby Alon Shvut told settler radio station Arutz Sheva when the store first opened that he was against the inter-mingling. "Rami Levy employs both Jews and Arabs and recently relationships were formed between these women and men. I'm strongly opposed to this. Rami Levy should pay a little more and employ Jews."

Levy responded by assuring Haaretz that "there's no miscegenation going on. It's all fabricated by our competitors."

A radically different viewpoint was presented by Rabbi Baruch Efrati of Efrat. When a boy wrote on the Kippa website that the Arabs are "dirtying the place with their faces" and hitting on Jewish girls, Efrati fired back.

"You can go to the Yad Vashem archives and find texts by Hitler and Goebbels using the same words you are using against the Arabs, but against us," he wrote. "I'm appalled that you would write that they are dirtying the place. How can you say something like that about God's creations? Your nationalism has become an obstacle, and has turned into hatred."