The Gaza Effect: In Shaky Economy, Arab Businesses Hit Hardest

Relations between Jews and Arab in Israel have rarely been as strained as in the past month, during which the allegiance of Israeli Arabs has been called into question.

NAZARETH – Souhel Farran doesn’t remember a month like this since he opened his popular restaurant in the heart of the touristy downtown here eight years ago. Business at Mejana, which specializes in traditional Middle Eastern fare, is down 80 percent compared with this time last year and, as Farran sees it, a host of factors are to blame.

“It’s complicated,” he says. “Most people, myself included, would rather be sitting by a television set these days, getting updates on the news, than going out for a good meal. I imagine there are also those who want to boycott Arab businesses or are afraid to visit Arab towns because of all the tension in the country, and then there are the tourists from overseas who’ve stopped coming.”

Usually jam-packed with tourists and groups of pilgrims at this time of day, the nearby Square of Mary’s Well, adjacent to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, is devoid of life. The cafes that surround the square are empty, and the usual lines outside the entrance to this well-known Christian holy site have disappeared.

Jewish-owned businesses, particularly those within Hamas rocket range, have definitely taken a hit in recent weeks in wake of the war in Gaza, but among Arab-owned businesses, it could more aptly be described as a brutal beating. A short stroll around the main attractions here in Israel’s largest Arab city is enough to indicate that business is most definitely not as usual.

“On a typical weekend, anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews descend on Nazareth,” says Jabir Asaqla, the co-executive director of Sikkuy, a non-profit organization active in promoting equality among Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens. “That has almost completely dried up.” Not only businesses in Nazareth, he adds, but also Arab markets in towns like Acre and Tira have seen their Jewish patrons disappear.

“It’s a process that began with the kidnapping of the teenage boys and then got worse when residents of Arab towns in Israel took to the streets to protest the murder of the Arab teenager in East Jerusalem,” he says. Another factor that certainly came into play, he adds, though hard to measure, was the call made by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to boycott Arab businesses in wake of these protests.

Although Nazareth’s holy sites are a key attraction for Christian tourists and pilgrims, that is less the case for Israeli Jews. Those Israeli tourists who typically swarm this town on weekends are drawn more by its famous eateries, the Old City market, and its many small specialty shops, where products like nuts, coffee, candy and spices can be had for bargain prices. So distinct is Nazareth from Israel’s other major cities that for many, it’s become a place to get a whiff of travel abroad without actually boarding a plane.

Maoz Inon, a young Jewish social entrepreneur, was among the first to grasp the hidden potential of this ancient city for both local and overseas tourists. Back in 2005, he entered into a partnership with a local woman and together they turned a decrepit mansion owned by her family into a posh guesthouse, the first of its kind in the city. Among the beneficiaries when the Fauzi Azar Inn opened were many of the restaurants and shops in the adjacent alleys of the old city. As word of its success began to spread, other entrepreneurs followed suit, and in recent years, seven more guesthouses have opened in Nazareth, many of them serving the overflow from Fauzi Azar.

But all that pre-dates the summer of 2014. Today, Inon and his partner are hurting just as badly as other businesses in town that feed off tourism. “Last night, all we had were seven guests,” he reports, sitting in the empty lobby of the Fauzi Azar Inn, under its gorgeous hand-painted ceiling. “Of eight employees, we’re now down to two-and-a-half, and we’ve stopped serving breakfast in the main dining hall because there aren’t enough guests.”

For many businesses here, there’s a creepy sense of deja vu. Back in October 2000, Jewish Israelis began avoiding Arab towns following violent protests that resulted in the deaths of 13 Arab demonstrators.

“It took more than a year then for things to return to normal,” recounts Asaqla.

A local fruit and vegetable vendor, Hatem Mahroum greets a small trickle of passersby outside his stand in the old city market. “The Jews have stopped coming,” he declares. “They used to give me lots of business on Saturdays, but not anymore.”

At his quaint little coffeehouse nearby, Ali Abu Ashraf is busy preparing the daily batch of katayef, little pancakes stuffed with either cheese or nuts and then deep-fried and doused in honey. It’s a Ramadan specialty, but as Abu Ashraf put it: “For us, every day is Ramadan.” Usually, the tables inside are full of locals, Jews from out of town and tourists, all drawn to this local hot spot for its famous dessert. Today, it’s just Abu Ashraf and an assistant minding the shop. “Very few people have been coming,” he says. “We’ve had times like this before, but this is the first time I can remember that people in Nazareth are afraid to leave town.”

While various factors can explain why Jews have begun avoiding Arab towns, there is one main reason that accounts for the recent disappearance of Arabs from Jewish towns, and that is outright fear. The cause of this fear was undoubtedly the grisly murder of the East Jerusalem teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, who was burned alive by his Jewish killers, following the discovery of the bodies of the three Jewish teenagers. By most accounts, relations between Jews and Arab in Israel have rarely been as strained as in the past month, a situation exacerbated by the recent war in Gaza, which called into question the allegiances of Israel’s Arab citizens, at least among certain Jews.

“People ask me, ‘Are you with us or with Hamas?’ They don’t understand that the situation is a lot more complicated than that,” says Sami Saadi, the co-founder of Tzofen, an organization that promotes the integration of Arab citizens into Israel’s high-tech sector.

Indeed, not only have Arab-owned businesses found themselves to be a casualty of recent tensions but so too have Arabs employed in Jewish-owned businesses. According to Gadeer Nicola, an attorney and director of the Nazareth branch of the non-profit Worker’s Hotline, dozens of complaints have been received in recent weeks from Arab workers who have either been fired or threatened with dismissal for expressing what she describes as “thoughts outside the consensus” on social media sites. These include, she says, not only expressions of joy about Israeli casualties in the Gaza war, widely publicized in the media, but also, “milder things, like posting photos of the victims of the violence in Gaza.”

Within the past few weeks, reports Nicola, 25 new Facebook pages have been created for the sole purposes of “shaming” Arab workers for their comments on the war and pressuring their Jewish employers to sack them.

But even those Arab workers who refrain from sharing their thoughts on social media are in jeopardy today, she says.

“From experience of past wars and military operations, when times get bad, it’s always the Arab workers who are the first to be made redundant and the last to be rehired,” she says.

Smadar Nehab, the other co-founder of Tzofen, reports that top-tier, high-tech companies show no less willingness these days to hire skilled Arab engineers. The problem is with those companies that don’t belong to the top-tier. “What I’m hearing from many of them these days is that this is not the time. Let’s wait until things calm down,” she says.

Alpha Omega, a manufacturer of medical devices founded by the Arab husband-and-wife team Anid and Ribb Yunis, last year moved its facility to Nazareth’s brand-new industrial park. Out of its 40 employees, four are Jewish, among them Oren Gargir, a product manager from Haifa. “No, I can’t say that anything has changed here,” he says, when asked whether tensions outside are affecting coexistence in the workplace. “We’re just anxious for all this to end.”

His friend and colleague, Samer Abboud, who’s in charge of sales and marketing in Asia, concurs. “Honestly, nothing has changed here at the workplace,” he says. “Sometimes we share our thoughts about the situation in discussions, but it never gets ugly.“

As for the overall situation in the country, Abboud is mildly optimistic. “If we’ve learned anything from the experience of October 2000, it’s that time does heal things,” he says.

Gil Eliahu