In Jaffa, Rockets and Conflict Threaten a Delicate Jewish-Arab Coexistence

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza is upsetting the balance between Jews and Arabs in Jaffa. 'The Jews don’t want to eat here anymore’ says Issa, a waiter at a usually packed restaurant known for its great hummus.

AP

On any other day at this hour, the line of customers waiting to be seated at this popular Jaffa eatery, known nationwide for its spectacular hummus, would be snaking out the door.

But today, the seats around the long tables at Abu Marwan are completely empty, the only signs of life on the premises a few waiters lounging around with nothing better to do than smoke cigarettes.

It would be easy to blame this sudden drop in business on Ramadan, which would naturally keep Muslims away at this early evening hour before the daily fast has ended. Except that most of Abu Marwan’s regular customers happen to be Jews, many of them fans of the mixed Jewish-Arab Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer team, who consider this restaurant their stronghold.

“The Jews don’t want to eat here anymore,” says Issa, a 26-year-old waiter. “And it’s not only here. I’ve been hearing this from many other restaurants in the area. This is not a good thing.”

It’s not only the rockets from Gaza that are keeping the Jews away, he believes. “It started before. It started with the incidents of the previous weeks,” says Issa, referring to the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers and the subsequent grisly murder of an East Jerusalem teenager, apparently by vengeful Jews, after their bodies were found.

Events of recent weeks have clearly taken a toll on the delicate coexistence that prevails between Arabs and Jews in cities like Jaffa. News that the East Jerusalem teenager had been burned alive by his killers sparked protests in Arab communities around the country, including Jaffa. And now with Hamas rockets from Gaza also raining down on them, Arab Israelis like Issa are finding it difficult to say exactly which side they’re on.

“We’re mad at both sides. Hamas is making a balagan,” he says, using the Hebrew slang for mess. “But why should old people and children be suffering as a result?”

Although the ancient port of Jaffa is officially part of the Tel Aviv municipality, in practice its mixed population and old-world feel set it very much apart. In recent years, large parts of the town have undergone gentrification, with a growing number of Jewish-Israeli homeowners and renters – among them yuppies and artists – discovering Jaffa’s unique charms. For some, it is the more affordable price of the real estate, compared with places like Tel Aviv, that has been the draw. For others, it is Jaffa’s multicultural and heterogeneous feel.

Another popular hangout for both Jewish and Arab residents is the Yaffa bookstore and café, which, according to founder and owner Michel El Raheb, is the only shop in central Israel that sells books in Arabic. “What we try to do here is showcase Palestinian culture and Arabic culture in general,” he says, pointing at the overflowing shelves of translated and original Arabic-language works.

“I feel very, very sad about what’s happening,” says El Raheb. “All we hear about these days is killing and destruction. And what’s especially sad is the lack of balance. You have a powerful state fighting against a powerless people.”

Although he’s noticed that the streets of Jaffa have been emptier than usual in recent days, El Raheb says his own business appears to have been spared thus far. “People are still coming like they used to,” he says.

As El Raheb goes to the kitchen in the back of the store to prepare his specialty makloubeh chicken cooked with rice and vegetables, a few more customers begin to saunter into the shop, among them a young Jewish father with his baby daughter, who greets El Raheb affectionately and sits down to chat.

At another table, Takeshi Kobayashi is sitting alone at a small table reading a book in his native tongue. The Japanese graduate student arrived in Israel a month ago to intern at the nearby Peres Center for Peace. Other interns on his program picked up and left as soon as the rockets began to fall, but not him. “Although I feel uncomfortable and frightened, I’m a student of international politics, so this provides me with a great opportunity to observe what’s going on,” he says. Plus, he adds, “I trust the Iron Dome.”

Sitting at another table by himself is an Egyptian diplomat, who asks that his name not be published, but volunteers that the quaint little bookshop, with its Oriental feel, is his favorite hangout in the country. “For me, it’s a great cultural center as well as a great place for authentic Palestinian food,” he says.

Sitting on a stool near a window overlooking the street, Mayssan Haddad, a local Christian Arab, is browsing the Internet. The 27-year-old film production assistant, who speaks fluent English, says he is more skeptical than ever about the viability of Jewish-Arab coexistence. “At one time, I had many Jewish friends,” he says, “but they are slowly disappearing because more and more of them are buying into what the rabbis say about all non-Jews wanting nothing more than to get rid of the Jews.”

A few minutes before 8 P.M., the muezzin at a nearby mosque announces that the fast is over for the day, and several waiters are seating themselves down at Abu Marwan for the traditional iftar meal to break the fast. They’ve prepared themselves a spread of schnitzel, white rice, pita bread, hummus, eggplant, fried cauliflower and stewed vegetables, all washed down with a super-sweet bright yellow drink. Aside from the small table they occupy at the back of the restaurant, the place is empty.

As they hungrily gobble up the food, their minds appear to be elsewhere. No, they respond to a question, none of them is particularly interested in the final game of the World Cup, which is about to kick off. “We’ve stopped watching the games because we’re distracted by the news,” says Nasser, the most veteran of the Abu Marwan waiters, with five years under his belt.

Do they have a shelter to go to in case of a siren? “A shelter?” laughs Issa. “We go out to the street when there are sirens. This building is 200 years old, and if it gets hit, it would collapse on us.”

“Whatever happens, happens,” chimes in Nasser, pointing to the sky. “Everything is determined up there, anyhow.”