New Tensions Threaten Arab Businesses Recovering From Trauma of Gaza War

Jewish customers, who stayed away from shops and restaurants in the Arab sector, had begun returning when the violence in Jerusalem exploded.

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Nazareth marketplace.
Nazareth marketplace.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Only months after Jewish customers returned to Israli Arab stores and restaurants following last summer’s Gaza war, Israeli Arab businesspeople are are once again looking worryingly at deteriorating relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Rising tensions in Jerusalem and the killing of an Israeli Arab by police in the Galilee over the weekend threaten to undo the tenuous recovery.

Kafr Kana resident Hussam Abbas, chef and owner of three Elbabur restaurants in Acre, Um Al-Fahm and Yokeneam Illit, joined the general strike on Sunday called by local leaders following the killing of Khayr al-Din al-Hamdan.

“The young man who was killed over the weekend is from my town and I know him, but I hope nothing will happen today and things will get back to normal quickly,” he said. “I only hope that this will be the last killing of an Arab citizen because it will agitate the street.”

About half the diners who fill his Um Al-Fahm restaurant in the week are Jewish Israelis and half Arabs, Abbas said..

During Operating Protective Edge, many Israeli Arab business reported lost business of 90% or more, as Jewish clientele opted to shop elsewhere, but shoppers and diners had begun coming back just weeks after the fighting ended in late August.

“Jewish customers began returning to the city faster than we expected, just three weeks after Protective Edge ended, said Tony Kanaza, who owns a spice shop called Elbabour in the Lev Ha’ir section of Nazareth. “Jewish shoppers are back in town going into the stores and we see that they want everything to go back to normal.” Nevertheless, he concedes that sales aren’t quite back to where they were before the war.

“All in all, we’re talking about 50 or 60% of our Jewish clientele coming back and about the same increase in sales, but there is certainly a steady increase from week to week. Even getting back half our Jewish customers is better than we expected. After the big drop in sales I thought the situation would continue until Christmas, when Jews come to watch the celebrations,” he said.

After the drop in business during Protective Edge, restaurant and guest house owners in Nazareth created a forum to lure back visitors. Its activities include organized tours of the city every weekend with the participants getting 10% discounts on local restaurants.

For his part, Abbas remains optimistic that the latest round of tensions won’t hurt business for long. In 2000, when the Second Intifada exploded and 13 Israeli Arabs were killed in confrontations with police in Um Al-Fahm, diners stayed away for a long time. After Protective Edge the recovery was faster, and business was back to usual within a month.

“People won’t be scared to come for long because human beings forget quickly. I believe nothing will happen – within a week or two they’ll forget about what happened,” Abbas said.

The King Store chain of supermarkets also joined Sunday’s strike, closing all eight of its branches until 3 P.M. In January, King Stores plans to open a ninth outlet in Be’er Sheva.

“We’re striking because we’re part of the population with leaders who decided to strike. What they decide we have to do. When we open a store in a Jewish area it won’t strike, of course, because we operate in and identify with the local community,” said CEO Magdy Kitani.

In Abu Ghosh, outside Jerusalem, which has been the center of violence, the Arab town’s many eateries have been hit hard. “Our businesses rely mainly on tourists and in the last two weeks because of the of tensions, there’s been a drop in the number off visitors,” said Sami Adbdul Rahman, one of the owners of the famous humus restaurant Abu Shukri. “We’ve also had fewer visitors on recent weekends because of the drop in visitors to Jerusalem.”

Like other Abu Ghosh businesses, Abu Shukri did not take part in Sunday’s strike.

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