It’s been nearly six weeks since the cease-fire went into effect, ending the major military confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip – fighting that was accompanied by assaults, vandalism and other chaos in the form of clashes between Jews and Arabs in Israel itself.
But business owners in the triangle of Israeli Arab communities northeast of Tel Aviv say they have failed to recover from the disturbances. Their revenues remain substantially down from the month of April – the month before the fighting erupted.
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The recent drop in business is another blow to the merchants, following the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the Arab business owners mention the word “fear” in its various iterations in conversations with Haaretz. Some express understanding regarding the reticence of Jewish customers, but add that it’s delaying the healing of the rifts that the recent hostilities created.
“We see Jews entering Kafr Qasem with weapons because there’s a certain fear,” said Muzhar Badir, a gas station owner in the Arab Israeli town northeast of Tel Aviv. “The residents are divided. There are those who were against the disturbances and there are those in favor, because it serves their interests. But life needs to go on. People don’t need to get too carried away. People are entrenching themselves in their positions on both sides,” he said.
Mohammed (not his real name), an electrical contractor from Taibeh, north of Kafr Qasem, recounted that he was working on the home of a family in the Jewish Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon when the job was suddenly put on hold. He discovered later that it was for a background check on him.
“After the war, the apartment owners asked to suspend my work. I ultimately learned that they wanted to check my criminal and security past,” he said. “It really caused emotional distress. To this day, I hear that there are several contractors and workers who have encountered difficulties following the war, but it seems that slowly things are returning to normal.”
Mohammed Masrawa, who also goes by the Hebrew name Dudu, owns a clinic in Taibeh. He too has been affected by Jewish customers’ fears. “My patients are Arab, but all of my service providers are Jewish,” he noted, including doctors and cosmeticians. “They are the ones who haven’t been coming in because they are afraid to come to Taibeh,” he said.
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There were barely a dozen customers at Taraboosh, a café in Kafr Qasem owned by Amran Amer, when Haaretz visited the establishment early one evening. Amer said that he has suffered a 62 percent drop in revenues during the recent period, a figure that in May during the war itself had fallen by more than 80 percent.
“To this day, I’ve been trying to bring back customers, mostly Jews. I used to get about 200 customers a day. Today it wasn’t more than 30. They’re not coming, out of fear,” he said. “I began accompanying customers who wanted to come to the café after the disturbances.”
Orian Bruner of the Tel Aviv suburb of Hod Hasharon is one of the Jewish customers who returned to the café. “I was a bit afraid of the events,” he acknowledged, referring to the disturbances, but he said that he came in any event because of his close relationship with the owner, describing their relationship as like brothers. “Today I feel less threatened, but there’s fear in the air that the war will return,” he added.
“If we were to have met on a Saturday before the disturbances, I wouldn’t have had time for you, but now look,” said Mohammed Jaber, pointing to his garage in the Arab town of Tira north of Tel Aviv. “The garage is nearly empty. Neither Jews nor Arabs are coming here much. There was serious harm done to the relationship between us, but I hope that we return to normal quickly.”
Ibrahim Samara, who manages the Buy Toys toy store in Tira, said that following the disturbances, his revenues dropped by 40 percent, and Jewish customers have been calling before coming to the store to ask whether it was safe. “They would ask if everything was all right. To this day, most of my customers, as well as suppliers, want to work through delivery services. They are afraid and I understand them, because I am also afraid to go around Bat Yam and Herzliya,” he said referring to two Jewish Tel Aviv suburbs.
Hadil Tilawi, who owns the Café Café chain’s Taibeh location, told Haaretz about the bat-mitzvah party that customers from the nearby Jewish town of Tzur Yitzhak had planned at his café – and then canceled. She said she had been thrilled to host the celebration, noting that it wouldn’t be common to hold a bat-mitzvah party in Taibeh. “Unfortunately they called and canceled and were also sorry about it. They weren’t afraid of coming, but most of their guests wouldn’t have come,” she acknowledged. “Almost no Jews are coming to the café. I believe that they are staying away due to fear, but I hope it ends quickly.”
There are other Arab business owners who say that their good relations with their Jewish customers have actually been maintained due to the tense atmosphere. “Jewish customers would call, ask about the situation and we would talk about all the incidents and refuse to surrender to what was happening. They weren’t resigned to the conflict,” said Qaid Qasem, who owns the Abu Omar Hummus Ful restaurant in Tira. Nevertheless, he said, his business revenues have dropped 30 percent.
“Two months ago, I would take in 10,000 shekels a month,” about $3,000, he said. “Now? 7,000 or 7,500 at most,” he added. “It’s not the first time that we have experienced such a situation, but this time, it’s taking longer to return to normal. The damage has been major.”
Maharan Balum, who owns the Hatzamet garage in the triangle Arab town of Kalansua, north of Tira, said his revenues have dropped by half since the end of May’s war. “Almost no one is coming from outside Kalansua. Only our most regular customers are coming. We’re still feeling the tension in the air.” he said.
“We’ve maintained good relations with Jewish customers during the period of the tension. All of us have expressed regret. The relations between us in general have in fact been hurt. It will take time for the situation to recover,” he acknowledged.
Afif Hatib, the owner of Afif’s Hummus in Kalansua, has persisted in hoping that coexistence is possible between Jews and Arabs, even though since the disturbances, most of his customers have been from Kalansua and Taibeh. There are many people, he said, who are eager to live in peace. But real peace, he added, has to be between Israel and the Palestinians “Rather than with Sudan and Dubai.”
“Just as the State of Israel identifies with Jews around the world and demonstrates solidarity and empathy towards them, it’s natural for the Arabs of Israel to identify with the Al Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah and their brothers in the Palestinian people in general,” he remarked.
The mayor of Taibeh, Sha’a Mansour Massarwa, points an accusing finger at the Israeli government when it comes to government assistance and support for the businesses. “We’re a major city in the triangle,” he said, “and trade from outside the city has been cut off. Unfortunately, the government has not taken any initiative to restore the businesses that have been harmed.”
“Without a doubt, relations between Arabs and Jews have been set back dozens of years,” he lamented. Israeli governments have ignored demands from Israeli Arab society to free up land for construction, for job creation and to address the disparities in local schools, the mayor claimed. And he reserved his greatest criticism of the government for its handling of crime and violence in Arab communities.
“It’s a badge of shame for the State of Israel, which has boasted about uncovering the Iranian nuclear program but has failed in collecting weapons from the crime families,” the mayor quipped.
Haaretz21 is an initiative aimed at amplifying underrepresented voices of Arab/Palestinian communities within Israel.