“You’re going to Nazareth? Are you crazy?” That formulation was the most common response when I told people last week of our plan to visit Arab communities around Israel. “You’ll be lynched,” was another, while some people just said “Take care.”
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In light of the atmosphere of panic of the past few weeks, even the safest of these towns, which are usually quite popular with Israeli Jews, are now, and mistakenly, perceived as dangerous.
Last week, when millions of Israelis were coping with the ever-increasing range of Hamas’ rockets, businesses throughout the country suffered. Restaurateurs in Ashkelon and Ashdod, long accustomed to slow periods due to rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, have been joined by colleagues in Rishon Letzion and even Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. But the security situation was felt in particular in places which until now were considered models of coexistence, and where the business owners — most of whom are Arabs — enjoyed peace and quiet until now.
Now they must deal with a new reality: In tense times, most of their Jewish customers stay away. It’s not new, but the Jewish retreat this time seems particularly strong.
Arab business owners in Nazareth, Abu Ghosh, Acre and Jaffa say the present round of hostilities has already caused a drop of up to 70% in the number of customers. The situation has gotten particularly bad since the riots that broke out in Arab communities two weeks ago, after the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in the Shoafat neighborhood in Jerusalem. Several Jews have been arrested for the murder of the 16-year-old boy.
The rioting scared off many Jewish families who visit these cities on the weekends, as well as tour groups. But even Arab communities where there were no protests, such as Abu Ghosh, outside Jerusalem, are feeling a drop in Jewish visitors. The town’s restaurants, usually packed with Israeli Jews, have been nearly empty since the three Israeli teenagers were abducted, on June 12.
True, at such times Israelis do not feel like going out much anywhere in any case, but it seems they are even less interested in going out to an Arab city or neighborhood.
Usually, in times of security-related tension, it takes a few days or a week or two at most before Israeli Jews return in large numbers to Arab areas, according to local Arab business owners. “This time the feeling is different. Something has changed,” one said, a sentiment that was echoed by others we spoke to.
The temporary drop in business has hit especially hard in places such as Nazareth, Abu Ghosh, Acre and Jaffa, symbols of coexistence that have enjoyed growth in real estate, tourism and commerce in recent years, as entrepreneurs helped create night spots or trendy vacation destinations.
Now the gourmet ice cream parlors and boutique hotels are sitting empty. Their owners must try and convince Jewish customers who once flocked to them that it is safe and no one will kidnap them — as if the clock was turned back to the riots by Israeli Arabs in 2000 and the beginning of the second intifada.
Write that nothing is going on here, write that it’s safe, business owners pleaded.
Abu Ghosh: Business down 70%
It’s early in the afternoon, and the streets of Abu Ghosh, a mixed town near Jerusalem, are almost completely empty No one is out in the street, under the blazing sun, and only a few cars pass us on the main street. The bakeries, ice-cream parlors, coffee shops and falafel and shwarma joints, and even the famous hummus restaurants, are all empty of customers. True, it’s a weekday and still early, but it’s completely empty.
Many of the owners are dependent on Jewish customers and tourists. Business dropped off right after the abductions, fell even further after the murder of Abu Khdeir, and stopped almost completely once the riots started. Owners report a drop of 60% to 70% in business in the village. The situation happened at the worst time, during Ramadan, which in any case is a weak month for business, they say. We aren’t politicians, we don’t deserve this, they say. We believe in coexistence, and we have never had problems with the Jews, they add. Why are we being punished?
For many years the residents of Abu Ghosh kept far away from politics. Only a few isolated incidents marred the peace of the village in the past, such as a so-called price tag attack a year ago, when a number of cars were vandalized, presumably by Jewish extremists.
But in the Middle East, politics is everywhere, especially if you live in an Arab town that depends on Jewish visitors. And when the visitors hear about Arabs rioting in Jerusalem, they keep far away from anything that sounds Arab.
“There is no justifiable reason for it to be empty here,” says Hisham Ibrahim, the owner of Hisham Coffee. “On Saturday it was completely empty, and the weather was actually good. It should have been packed. But people are scared. They don’t come to Arab businesses. Suddenly they remember that Abu Ghosh is an Arab village,” he says.
One of his local customers disagrees: “It’s not fear. They’re not afraid. They simply don’t want to give money to an Arab village.”
Walking around Jaffa’s Flea Market, like anywhere in Jaffa-Tel Aviv it’s hard to believe there’s a war going on. There are tourists in the boutiques, the trendy restaurants and ice-cream shops are full and there’s a line at the Abulafia Bakery. Everything is perfectly normal, until the sirens sound and two loud explosions are heard in the sky above the city.
This is the new, post-gentrification Jaffa. There’s no reason for Jews not to come to this city, which can appear to be an amusement park, made just for them.
“The only thing that worries me these days is the World Cup,” said one restaurateur, one of the few who didn’t put up a big screen so customers could watch the games.
The new, trendy shops in the Flea Market have not been overly affected by the security situation, but deeper into the city, farther from the port, the atmosphere is much more tense.
At first, local businessmen are wary of telling the truth, but in the end the numbers come out: a 30% drop in business over the past week. A local real estate broker said a number of deals he has been working on have been held up by Jewish clients, who want to wait and see what happens.
“We always said, it won’t reach here,” saays Ibrahim Kalboni, of the eponymous restaurant. “But since last week we feel a very sharp drop [in business]. I am not sure what it was, I don’t follow the news too much, but the present situation is felt very strongly here,” he said.
“There are four types of customer,” says an employee in a local coffee shop. “There are the Muslim Arabs, who only drink coffee until Ramadan is over. There are the Arabs from the periphery, who still come here. There are the Jews who come from the outside, where we see a very large drop and there are the regular Jews, residents of Jaffa, who come normally, but we don’t make any money from them,” he said.
Binyamin Ohayon sits in his small clothing store and proudly shows off an old newspaper cutting — an article about him, published after the riots in 1994. He has owned the store for 40 years, and his son Avi has been working here for 20 years.
“There is no work, but this is not exceptional. It is natural that when there is a mess it has an influence,” says Avi, who estimates business is off by 50%. But he also completely rules out the possibility there is tension between Arabs and Jews in Jaffa.
“I’ve been here 20 years, my father 40. We live in peace, in coexistence,” he says. Nearby business owners agree, and call him warmly “one of us.”