Violence Empties Israeli Streets, Stores Report Rush on Pepper Spray

Business is down by as much as 50% for some Jerusalem merchants, but the situation is good for security firms.

Olivier Fitoussi

“The Mahaneh Yehuda market has really been empty over the past two days,” Elkana Wissenstern said on Friday, referring to Jerusalem’s usually bustling central market.

“People are sitting at home and hearing about a terrorist attack in one place, a terrorist attack in another, and they’re afraid to go out,” said the second-generation owner of a fish stand that has been operating at the market since the 1980s. “Usually on a Friday there are masses of people from around the country, but today you barely see them.”

“Jerusalemites, who are my regular customers, are not coming. They’re not used to what has been happening lately. They’re used to there being a mess in the Old City, but not in the western part of the city,” he said. “Jerusalemites tell me that they are afraid and prefer to go to the supermarket downstairs of their own apartments, where there is a security guard.”

A regular customer told TheMarker: “I prefer to eat frozen, vacuum-packed tilapia from the supermarket but stay alive rather than live sea bream from the market.”

It’s not the first time that Wissenstern has had to deal with a drop in sales because of the security situation. “There are better times and worse, but in the end it evens out. Without any connection to this, I don’t think people’s concerns about coming to the market are justified. There are a lot of Arab workers and stall owners in the market, and they are generally people with families who come to work and not to argue.”

The wave of stabbing attacks and other incidents of terrorism has quickly led to more business for security firms and businesses selling personal protection gear like pepper spray and even brass knuckles.

In Jerusalem, most of the downturn has been experienced by downtown and open markets, rather than enclosed, commercial centers and markets.

In past waves of terrorist or rocket attacks, restaurants at least enjoyed a booming takeout business. This time, however, the takeout business has also suffered, says Itay Jonas, owner of Atza Sushi Bar, a nationwide restaurant chain with 24 locations. “Our revenues were down all week, and on Thursday the drop was more than 50%. On Thursday night, which is usually the busiest, the restaurant was empty, with just two tables occupied. My franchisee said the city was empty and there was no one on the street, like there was a curfew.”

Enclosed malls less affected

It’s the enclosed shopping malls that have managed to maintain business as usual. “As of now, our traffic hasn’t fallen, and we’ve even experienced a small increase,” says Eyal Sakoza, the general manager of the Hadar Mall in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

Nir Keidar

“Customers say they feel safer in a mall rather than on the city’s main streets. We’ve reinforced our security and added more guards at the entrance and on patrol outside the mall,” he says. “We’re still getting Arab shoppers. Usually when there are disturbances, the Arab public doesn’t venture out, but this time they are continuing to come. The feeling at least here is business as usual.”

Executives at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall, where a terrorist carried out a stabbing attack on a nearby street Thursday, reported that traffic has been lighter – but not much lighter – than normal.

“There’s no doubt that events have an impact and there’s a drop in traffic at the mall, but it’s not dramatic,” says manager Ophir Oren. “On Thursday afternoon and on Friday, there were somewhat fewer visitors than what we are used to. Even during the incident, people didn’t flee.”

Things, Oren said, were much worse during the Gaza war last summer, when much of Israel suffered rocket attacks for more than a month.

At the Kenyon Hagadol mall, which was the site of a nearby stabbing attack last week, executives said sales had not been hurt. “I walked out of the mall on Friday afternoon and it was full of people, the 1,500 parking spaces were full,” says Moshe Rosenblum, CEO of the Melisron mall group, which operates the mall. “The attack didn’t take place right outside the mall, as some news channels claimed, but at the bus stop on Jabotinsky Street opposite Beilinson Hospital. Residents who see the video of the stabbing attack identify where it happened. There has been no drop in traffic at any of our malls.”

Hai Galis, vice president of Big Shopping Centers, which also operates open strip centers, stepped up security as of last Friday with armed guards, enhancing the safety advantage enclosed malls already have. “People are calmer at malls since no terrorist attacks have occurred inside the malls but just in the vicinity,” Galis says. “There’s obviously a drop in traffic at our centers around the country, but it’s hard to know if it’s from the sour national mood, which always affects sales, or from the end of the holiday period.”

Particularly hard hit was the company’s Big Fashion Mall Nazareth at the entrance to the city, whose clientele during the week is about 60% Arabs and 40% Jews, and on Saturdays 70% Jewish. “The past several days at the Nazareth mall have been slow,” Galis acknowledges.

The anecdotal accounts are borne out by survey data from the last several days collected by Snir, a retail marketing firm, which found that malls have seen increased sales at the expense of street retailers, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But Snir CEO Nir Shmol says the first rains of the season also may have driven shoppers indoors. Merchants, he says, expressed concern that they would have to hire private guards, as they did during the second intifada, the wave of terrorism that began at the end of the year 2000.

Guards cost more

With the sudden surge in violence, security guards are in demand and hourly rates have jumped by some estimates 15% to 20%. Demand is strongest where stabbing attacks have occurred – Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva, as well as Kiryat Gat in the south, where a terrorist fled into a woman’s apartment, notes Nir Gilboa, CEO of Team-3 Security, one of Israel’s largest security firms.

“Demand is mostly for increasing the number of guards at malls and educational institutions, and there is strong demand to arm guards that we had been sending without a weapon. The number of courses that we are opening at the moment to recruit and train our personnel has gone up 40%, compared to ordinary times.”

Although the tense security situation is an economic boon for security firms, regulatory changes are making it harder for them to supply enough armed guards.

“In the past, all of them were armed and guards even brought their weapons home after work. But after a series of incidents in which weapons were misused, possession has been severely restricted and rules put in place on who can own one and how to get a license, which includes lengthier training and more government oversight. Other than in exceptional circumstances, you can’t take a weapon home now,” Gilboa notes.

Many Israelis are not counting on others and buying equipment for their own protection. “The level of hysteria of shoppers at the store is crazy,” David Gottlieb, the manager of a Lemetayel Odafim backpackers store in Jerusalem, said on Friday. “Instead of buying backpacks and sleeping bags, they’re concentrating on self-defense, asking us for clubs and brass knuckles. We don’t sell this and it’s also not legal to carry it outside the home, but the item in most demand over the past 48 hours is without question pepper spray.”

Sales of pepper spray at the retailer’s downtown Jerusalem store are up by 500%, Gottlieb says. And demand for pepper spray is not limited to Jerusalem. Lemetayel reports a major jump in demand at its Dizengoff Center store in Tel Aviv as well.

When it comes to security guards, Shahaf Chayu of the Shahaf Group, which provides security services to clients like the Egged bus company, Clalit Health Services and the post office, says he has seen a spike in inquiries about security services, including people calling for price information.

“Most of the callers are at the stage of checking prices, but there are also those who want a guard for the next day. It harkens back to the days of the second intifada,” he says.

“These days it’s already rare to see a guard at a restaurant, but back then they were full of security guards,” he recalls, noting that restaurants at the time even charged diners a small security fee.

“We are getting out-of-the-ordinary inquiries, for example, a family of 15 people who are stopping at Latrun,” he says, referring to an area between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem on the pre-1967 border. “They want to sleep in tents overnight and have asked for a guard. A group of parents called and asked for a guard for a private nursery in Tel Aviv. Even a couple getting married at one of the kibbutzim in the north asked for two armed guards for their event, just in case.”