Ambitious project facing complex issues in the contested West Bank
It is being billed as the newest project in co-existence—a shopping mall in Atarot, a suburb of Jerusalem located in the West Bank. The vision is business mogul Rami Levy’s, known foremost for his chain of Israeli- and Palestinian-run supermarkets. The $53-million building covers 25,000 square meters, houses 50 stores and offers many products that previously were unavailable in the region.
“We have restaurants, clothing shops, supermarkets and a nice atmosphere,” Sammi Abassi, owner of an eatery inside the mall, told The Media Line. “We chose to open here because we want to succeed in life.”
For many, the fashion, gizmos and gadgets are not the main attraction but, rather, seeing Jews and Arabs working and mingling side-by-side.
“I opened my shop because of the wonderful buying experience, everyone is together and this is very important,” store owner Abed Burkan told The Media Line.
Another shop owner, Amjad Awadallah, told The Media Line “this is going to be good for all and there is anyway no choice as we have to live with each other,” adding, “let’s just make peace.”
But the mall is creating an unintended consequence: that is, in some cases it is harming the livelihoods of the very same people it is meant to help.
“The mall is a catastrophe for Palestinian markets and projects,” Fareda abu Sharef, a Palestinian resident of nearby Shuafat, contended to The Media Line. “I will not go there in order to show support for Palestinian merchants and other people should think about this.”
At play is the principle of economies of scales, which describes the ability of larger businesses to buy in bulk, therefore lowering their cost and the resulting consumer pricing.
“The mall and other Israeli projects in east Jerusalem provide better prices simply because they export huge amounts of goods and some have their own production lines,” Nasser Jitan, a shop owner in the Palestinian Beit Hanina neighborhood, told The Media Line. “We are only very humble merchants without much capital and thus cannot compete.
“You can say that this is the beginning of an economic war against east Jerusalem, its economic Judaization. We fear more similar projects in Arab areas that would force businesses to close down and workers will end up at Israeli ones.”
Tensions have long existed in the West Bank, sometimes exploding into mass violence. A stark reminder is the contentious security barrier, a portion of which is located directly across the road from the Atarot mall. Israel began building it during the Second Intifada, a period between 2000 and 2005 characterized by Palestinian suicide bombings in Israeli public places. Nearly two decades later, the area is still marred by violence and a negotiated settlement to the conflict remains elusive.
Despite the drawbacks, however, there are still many Palestinians in adjacent towns that are on board with Rami Levy’s project.
“It’s not about supporting an Israeli trader over a Palestinian one,” Khuloud, a Shuafat resident, told The Media Line. “For me it’s about saving money, as a kilo of tomatoes would cost me 8 shekels ($2.20) in Arab areas whereas at Rami Levy I pay three shekels ($0.80). I have a big family so I shop at the cheaper places, especially with the bad economic situation we are going through these days.”
While the mall is supposedly marketed to all residents, many Jews in surrounding villages and even larger communities had not heard of the project and those that had expressed mixed interest.
“The mall here in Pisgat Ze’ev [in Jerusalem] is specifically for locals that want to buy in a place with good security and that is not open to the entire West Bank population,” Dina B., a store manager at the complex, related to The Media Line.
Accordingly, while the mall may offer a small window into a would-be peaceful future, it is also a stark reminder of the complexities that still exist in contested territory and the work that needs to be done to overcome divisions.