At an axis point between Jewish and Arab Jerusalem, and just a two-minute drive from the West Bank crossing that leads to Ramallah, Israeli developer and business guru Rami Levy is building the first Israeli-Palestinian mall. He is hoping the power of the free market can be harnessed into a force for coexistence.
The idea for the mall, Levy said, comes from his existing shopping centers and supermarkets in the West Bank, which have become unexpected points of friendly interaction between Jews and Arabs looking for jobs and the cheapest prices.
Half realist, half dreamer, Levy confronts the fact that Arab and Jews are destined to live together and concludes that they must do what they can to make the best of the situation “and serve each other as best as possible.”
If his mall succeeds, Levy said, “it can lead to an understanding that we can do everything together.”
The mall, due to be finished in about a year, sits at the tip of northeastern Jerusalem in the Atarot neighborhood, located in eyeshot of Ramallah and separated from the West Bank security barrier only by a thin road. In total, Levy says, the mall will serve 120,000 Arab and 90,000 Jewish Jerusalemites, plus the tens of thousands of Palestinians streaming daily into the capital from the West Bank for work and pleasure.
Unlike other shopping centers and malls in Israel where Jews and Arabs shop side by side, the Atarot mall will be the first truly joint Israeli-Palestinian venture.
Levy’s company has been working hard to make sure the stores will reflect the local population, including finding Palestinian retailers and private shops to rent storefronts.
Currently, most of the Palestinian stores that have reserved space are food suppliers, including the well-known Palestinian bakery Sinokrot. Another possible store will be the famous Zalatimo candy store.
At one point, Levy had reeled one of the biggest Palestinian wholesalers of electronics, but after the deal was made, the potential client got cold feet.
“There are many who are not afraid. I have rented to many Palestinians. I don’t know exactly happened, but he became scared for political reasons.”
Levy continued: “He needs to understand that most of the customers here will be Palestinians and he would be serving them. He didn’t want to do business with Jews. But we aren’t afraid to do business with Palestinians. I am not afraid. I believe, once I open up here and he sees everything is okay, he will regret it.”
‘He didn’t want to do business with Jews. But we aren’t afraid to do business with Palestinians.’
The 200,000-plus population Levy’s mall will serve has no nearby shopping center and the 60-70 stores will be a great boon in terms of saving money, 1,500 new jobs and access to goods and services. But for the project’s founder, the financial side of his project hinges on its social core.
In fact, says the self-started businessman who became famous for wild sales that included selling milk cheaper than water and a kilo of chicken for 10 cents, his business strategy begins with thinking about his customers.
“The second I thought about things from a social point of view, my businesses have prospered. I helped the public, took down prices, and now you see people want to do their shopping in my stores. The same is true for here, the moment I set an example and I see everything is in order, I believe this place will prosper,” Levy said.
Levy is confident the prices at his mall will beat those in Ramallah, even though salaries are much smaller in the Palestinian territories.
Though Levy’s stores have become sites of rare coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, they have also seen several lethal attacks by Palestinians over the years.
Asked if the new mall would have any special security precautions, Levy answered, “There is fear in Tel Aviv, in Ramallah, in every place. Even in the US there is fear. These fears exist but we need to overcome them. We need to show people who want to frighten us that they won’t beat us.”
Neither the police nor the military have mentioned any security fears. Rather, according to Levy, politicians were elated by the idea, with both Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon pledging their immediate support for the project.
But it was not just the politicians who jumped on board. Levy said it was much easier for him to rent out store space at Atarot than any other of his other malls.
“People really believe in this place,” he said, adding that while it took two and a half years to find renters for 80% of his mall space in Mevaseret Zion, a town near Jerusalem, it took just three months to rent out 80% of the Atarot mall.
When asked whether he had done research to see if the site would be successful, Levy responded: “None at all. I work from my gut feelings, and they say this will be the most prosperous place in the state.”
‘I work from my gut feelings, and they say this will be the most prosperous place in the state.’
Asked if this could this be a small window into what a one-state solution for Palestinians and Israelis would look like, Levy responded: “I’m not a politician who can decide one state or two states. As long as we are living together, we need to live in the best way possible. The politicians will decide if we need two states or one. But as long as I live here, I want to live in peace. If they decide two states, how do they say in Arabic: ahala u sahala [welcome].”
Levy is currently facing legal troubles. Israel Police recommended earlier in June that he be indicted for illegal use of information about employees and competitors taken from his cellular phone company.
In response to the allegations, Levy said: “Everything you heard in the news so far is incorrect.”
Palestinians: Cheap prices are a big draw, for those who can get in
The Times of Israel went to the Qalandiya Crossing — a Ramallah-Jerusalem security passageway about a ten-minute walk from the future mall — to ask Palestinians what they think about Rami Levy’s new mall.
While many wished not to be quoted in Israeli media out of fear of the Palestinian police — some said they feared Israeli security — wave after wave of Palestinian groups said they would have no problem taking advantage of Levy’s cheaper prices.
Samah Annan, who owns a clothing store in Ramallah, was one of the few who didn’t mind being interviewed on camera.
She wasn’t sure how many Palestinians from the West Bank would frequent the new mall, simply because they needed special permission to cross into Israeli-controlled Jerusalem.
“I don’t know if many people can go because we have West Bank IDs, so maybe every six months we can go once. But I hear many Palestinians go to his shops because they are cheaper than shops in Ramallah,” she said, referring to Levy’s stores in the West Bank that Palestinians can reach without passing through any security crossings.
Currently, around 58,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, though there are plans to greatly increase that number in the near future.
The fashion store owner said she couldn’t guess what the atmosphere would be like between Jews and Arabs at the mall because she hadn’t experienced the place firsthand. She did, however, admit to buying materials for her store in Israeli shops simply because it was cheaper.
“The point for me is that everyone has something they like so much, people will come and buy it. It doesn’t matter for me if it is Palestinian or Israeli [owned]. I will buy my stuff and economically it is good for me,” she said.
A friend traveling with Samah who wished not to be interviewed was one of the few who expressed opposition to the mall. When asked why, she said because it was part of the Israeli settlements.
A taxi driver at the crossing, who said his name was also Rami (though this reporter remains skeptical), also thought that because it is difficult for Palestinians to get permission to enter Jerusalem, not many would frequent the mall.
When asked about the tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers who cross into Jerusalem each day from the Qalandiya Crossing, most of whom are construction workers, Rami said, “They may buy little stuff like Coke and cigarettes and cheaper food,” but expensive purchases were unlikely.
Amanda, a psychology student at Birzeit University near Ramallah, said Palestinians who can visit Levy’s new shopping center will do so, because “it’s a famous mall. He sells lots of good stuff.”
When asked about the idea of Palestinians shopping side by side with Jews, the psychology student said, “Jewish and Palestinian, it’s okay with us, there is no problem. We just want to shop and buy something for us.”