SPECIAL REPORT: Conflict takes back seat to commerce in Palestinian village

Haredi shoppers from Betar Illit know they can find a bargain in nearby Husan.

RELIGIOUS SETTLER Yanki Herchkov (right) shops last week in the store that Mustafa Sabateen (center) owns in the West Bank Palestinian village of Husan. (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
RELIGIOUS SETTLER Yanki Herchkov (right) shops last week in the store that Mustafa Sabateen (center) owns in the West Bank Palestinian village of Husan.
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Video: Eli Mandelbaum
A Shabbat clock is one of the hottest-selling items in Mustafa Sabateen’s hardware store in the West Bank Palestinian village of Husan. This is true even though Jews don’t live there and none of Husan’s residents needs or buys one.
“This is one of our most important items,” Sabateen said as he displayed one of the timing devices that can be set to turn appliances on or off. It showed an NIS 85 price tag, but in the neighboring haredi (ultra-Orthodox) settlement of Betar Illit the same clock sells for NIS 139.
Jewish bargain hunters cross the two-lane highway that divides the two communities on a daily basis.
As one approaches this corner of Gush Etzion from Jerusalem, signs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as signs of the differences between the Jewish and Muslim communities, are clearly in sight.
To the left, one can see a Hebrew sign for Betar Illit, along with the large apartment buildings that belong to the haredi city of more than 43,000, which is the second- largest West Bank settlement.
To the right, a mosque dots the skyline with its minaret. A large wire fence lines a portion of the road on the Husan side to protect against rock-throwing. In front of the Palestinian village of 7,000 is a large red sign in three languages that states, “Entry by Israeli citizens is dangerous.”
But evidence that the economy trumps the conflict here is evident, even from the road, where right under the sign on Thursday, a Palestinian had set up a van from whose rear doors he sold cartons of 30 eggs for NIS 20 – NIS 10 cheaper than in Betar Illit.
And although an army jeep was parked across the road, cars with Israeli licenses streamed into the village.
In his hardware store, Sabateen waved his arm and said, “Look outside. You see more Jews than Arabs here. On Shabbat, no one is outside; it is as if the village is shut down.”
To underscore his point, Hebrew signs dot the onelane road on which the Palestinian businesses are located.
At a garage next door to Sabateen’s store, a young, modestly dressed, religious Israeli woman sat outside on a plastic chair, busy messaging on her smartphone as she waited for her car to be repaired.
She was among those afraid to be identified for the article, but said she lives in a nearby settlement.
“Don’t make a mistake. I’m not a left-winger. I’m right-wing, even extreme, but cheap is cheap,” she said.
A Palestinian mechanic, Husan Jabri, stepped away from working on a car to explain that almost all his customers are Jews.
“They are not afraid to come here; just ask them,” he added, as he looked out at the settlers in his parking lot.
“All of Betar is here,” joked one of his customers.
Ya’acov Ben-David, an Israeli man wearing a black skullcap, a blue sweatshirt, and sneakers, came up to Jabri as he spoke and patted him on the shoulder.
“He is a good man; his work is very professional; we are very happy with him; everything is A+ and at halfprice,” Ben-David said. He added that he wouldn’t even think of taking his car to Israeli mechanics, who he claimed overcharge their customers.
Husan resident Rabiya Ahmed Sabateen said car garages, construction material and home supplies are among the top reasons settlers come to his village.
It was hard for him to recall exactly how the unofficial ties with the people of Betar Illit started, he said. But it grew from the ground up, from individual relationships.
His brother, for example, worked in construction in the settlement and started to talk with some of the residents, Rabiya said. They developed a friendship, and when they understood from him that items were priced lower in Husan, they crossed the road to see what the shops there had to offer, he said.
A haredi man with a black beard, black skullcap and sweater spoke with The Jerusalem Post as he sat in his van.
The man, who did not wish to be named, said it had become clear to him that the best prices and widest selection of merchandise could be found in Husan. One can save 25 to 50 percent on certain items, he said.
The prices and the selection are even better than what one can find in the industrial areas of nearby Jerusalem, he said.
“I have been coming here for years. The service is great, the quality is good, the price is right and you do not have to wait in line,” he said.
He added that he had also developed a personal relationship with people in the village. “I have visited a lot of these homes,” he said.
But security officials are wary of the relationship. Shlomo Vaknin, chief security officer for the Council of Jewish Communities of Judea and Samaria, said that the situation is complicated.
When the two communities have an economic relationship and know one another on a personal level, it does lessen the violence in the area and makes it more secure, said Vaknin.
But that pales in comparison to the risks, he said. Of particular concern, Vaknin said, is that settlers can be easily targeted by terrorists who want to kidnap them.
There are no roadblocks monitoring the road from Husan to neighboring Palestinian towns and cities in Area A. So there is nothing to block the path of a kidnapper, he said.
“Going into Palestinian areas like this is genuinely very dangerous,” he said.
Rabiya Ahmed Sabateen disagreed.
“People come here without any problems,” he said, adding, “this is the way to make peace.”
In his hardware store, Mustafa Sabateen said that the Palestinians in his village make sure to protect their Jewish customers, because it is in their economic interest to make sure they return.
Yanki Herchkov of Betar Illit, who stopped by the store, said his top reason for coming is to save money. But as he has come to know the people there, his attitude toward them has also changed.
“They respect us and we respect them,” he said. “If they have work and we support them, the area is very quiet.”