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As war tensions flare, Arab businesses struggle
By NIV ELIS
08/06/2014
Arab businesses started feeling the pinch in June, during the search for three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, who later were discovered murdered.
 
It’s hard to tell what is behind the slump at the Tishreen restaurant in Nazareth, popular among Jews, Arabs and tourists alike.

It could be the general effect of the Gaza conflict that has dragged on for the past month, which reduced people’s desire to go out.

It could be the sag in tourism, which has fallen by about a third during the operation. It could also be a result of tensions between Arabs and Jews in a time marked by kidnappings, killings, terrorism, thuggishness and war.

Arab businesses started feeling the pinch in June, during the search for the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers, who were later discovered murdered. The subsequent revenge killing of an Arab youth, Muhammad Abu Khdeir, gave way to large Arab demonstrations.

Israel’s rounding up of released Hamas prisoners and the onset of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, set the groundwork for Operation Protective Edge.

As the body count in Gaza rose, Arabs demonstrated against the operation, expressing sympathy for their brethren. Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman called for a boycott of Arab businesses who participated in the demonstrations.

“Even without the boycott, when there’s a war, business drops,” said Musa Naara, who owns Tishreen.

“A minister who casts a boycott on a population: It’s incomprehensible.

A government must support its businesses, Jewish or Arab. We’re citizens and it should support us.”

Thabet Abu Rass, the co-executive director of the Abraham Fund Foundation, a coexistence NGO, said that Arab businesses had been having an increasingly difficult time as events progressed.

“There’s no question that relations were tense before the war in Gaza, before the Abu Khdeir killing. The Abu Khdeir killing was just a trigger.”

Tira, a market town where secular Jews come to shop on Saturdays, is a good barometer of Jewish- Arab relations in Israel, he said.

“Every Saturday, it’s a market to which 10,000 Jews come. Today, I think just a few dozen show up.”

Last week, a Globes poll found that 67 percent of Jewish Israelis said they would stop shopping at Arab-owned businesses.

“I think that this has been a very sensitive, tricky, hard time in the employment sector from all directions,” said Tziona Koenig- Yair, the equal employment opportunity commissioner at the Economy Ministry. “People are bringing their strong views into the work force.”

The commission has received complaints from Arabs that they were fired for expressing their political views.

The media has been rife with stories of Arabs who lost their jobs or business after expressing themselves on social media, sometimes in empathy toward Gazans, sometimes in hostility to Israel.

The same Globes poll found 57% of Jews would skip Jewish businesses that didn’t fire Arabs who expressed hatred for Israel.

“Obviously there is a big difference in saying you are empathetic to all sides that are suffering and calling for violence,” Koenig-Yair said.

Boycotts of Arab businesses and discrimination against Arab employees may have longer-term implications for the economy.

Bodies from the Bank of Israel to the International Monetary Fund argued that integrating Arabs into the workforce is a vital necessity for Israel’s long-term economic viability. While Economy Minister Naftali Bennett has pushed Arab integration, he has remained silent on Liberman’s remarks.

“We all realize that Arab citizens in Israel must be a part of the economy if we want our economy to succeed, just as ultra-Orthodox Jews must,” said Koenig-Yair, who argues that relations can be repaired once things settle down.

“I’d be extremely cautious about jumping to conclusions based on a poll taken during a military operation,” she said. “We always move on and we always move forward – that’s the essence of this country.”

Abu Rass is inclined to agree. An Abraham Fund letter to the Manufacturers Association of Israel was well-received, and the group plans to sit with President Reuven Rivlin in the coming weeks to push the issue ahead.

In Tashreen, Naara waits patiently for the hustle and bustle to return.

“We’re preparing for things to return to how they were,” he said.
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