Arab Markets in Acre, Haifa Pay Price of Unrest

Merchants in the northern port cities say foot traffic has plummeted since the violence spread to Israel.

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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The Old Acre Market, October 11, 2015.Credit: Rami Shllush
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

“It’s worse than a war,” said one of the fishermen trying to sell his catch at the open-air market in Acre’s Old City on Sunday.

“When there’s a war, you know there’s a war,” he explained. “Now, they immediately go ‘boycott, boycott, boycott’ over every little thing.”

For the past few days, the market in this mixed Arab and Jewish city has been empty, a casualty of the rise in tensions between the communities nationwide. Local businessmen said it reminds them of the second intifada from 2000 to 2005.

“You could throw a soccer ball from one side of the market to the other and not hit anyone,” the fisherman added. “Over one small thing, they’ve destroyed everything.”

A colleague sitting nearby insisted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could end all the unrest “in seconds” if he wanted, and voiced hope that some Arab state might step in to calm the situation. He blamed the unrest on Jews visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is also the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque.

“It’s forbidden for Jews to enter Al-Aqsa,” he declared.

Outside a local cafe, a group of retirees and workers from the market played cards.

“I work at a restaurant, and look, instead of working, I’m playing cards,” one said.

The Old Acre Market, October 11, 2015.Credit: Rami Shllush

Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem, speaking on Sunday with several media outlets, spoke out against the demonstrations in his city and against Arab Knesset members, saying they caused serious economic damage to Arab communities as well as to Arab-owned businesses in mixed cities.

In Acre, by contrast, there has been no public unrest, aside from one minor incident of stone-throwing a few days ago that ended quickly. One resident said the city has remained calm in part because everyone knows everyone else, including the police.

“If someone throws a stone, they’ll catch him immediately,” he explained.

Meron, who works at a jewelry and souvenir shop, said that on a normal Saturday, the market gets about 10,000 tourists. But this weekend, “there were maybe 1,000. Not even 10 percent.”

Meron noted that he has a gun license. But despite the recent spate of stabbing attacks elsewhere in the country, he said, his gun remains locked in his safe.

“Here, there’s no fear that someone will stab you,” he asserted. “Granted, no one can be certain, but here, the chance is near zero.”

Almost the only tourists visiting the market are those from abroad — and even they “are just taking pictures, not buying,” complained the owner of one empty restaurant.

Wadi Nisnas in Haifa, October 11, 2015.Credit: Rami Shllush

Nevertheless, one group of Israeli Jews was visiting from Jerusalem. “We brought stones from Jerusalem; if they throw any at us, we’ll throw them right back,” one woman joked. But then they turned serious. “A consumer boycott doesn’t speak to us,” one explained.

A German couple, young children in tow, said this was their tenth visit to Israel and they were completely unfazed by the security situation. James Baldwin, an American student who will be studying at Tel Aviv University this year, declared that Acre is safe, so he isn’t afraid.

Marwan Kurdi, who works at a spice shop in the market, tried to stay optimistic. “I think this will end quickly,” he said, noting by contrast that no one came to the market during the first six months of the second intifada.

Maydan, who owns the housewares shop next door, chimed in, “We need to uproot this — not a truce every time, after which it starts again.

“How come every time there’s a break, and then it starts again? Because that’s the government’s style,” he accused, adding that he can no longer stand listening to the news.

After a brief discussion about Netanyahu, Kurdi waxed nostalgic for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “He was a superstar,” Kurdi said.

“A leader needs to be a leader,” agreed Madyan.

In Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood, by contrast, the merchants sounded more upbeat. Most shops in Wadi Nisnas are closed on Sundays in any case. But workers in the few that were open said the situation there isn’t as bad as it is in Acre.

Bulus Issa said his restaurant didn’t do any less business than usual on Saturday, though he added that he worried this might change. During the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, for instance, business dropped by 80 percent and stayed that way for three months, he recalled.

“We’ve started to think about that; we hope it won’t happen again,” he said, adding that he was furious over a recent media report that depicted the area’s restaurants as empty.

A young man whose family owns a nearby falafel stand concurred. On Saturday, business was down by about 10 percent, but “not 50 percent like they try to portray it,” he said.

On Saturday night there were two demonstrations in Haifa’s German Colony neighborhood, one by right-wing extremists and one, relatively small, by about 50 Arabs. But Nabil Musalem, who works at a corner kiosk, claimed the demonstrators weren’t even from Haifa and indignantly demanded that they keep their demonstrations in their own towns.

“It’s all nonsense,” he declared. “If the mayor wouldn’t permit those demonstrations, we’d live in peace.”