'Let's talk less about who's who. Let's just shop together'

On edge of Jerusalem alongside security barrier, Jews and Arabs shop at new mall

‘I’ve waited for this for many years,’ says supermarket mogul and founder Rami Levy, on site for the first day of business as his shopping center prepares to open fully in 3 weeks

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Supermarket king Rami Levy drinks coffee at Atarot Mall, his new complex on the seam of Arab and Jewish Jerusalem (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Supermarket king Rami Levy drinks coffee at Atarot Mall, his new complex on the seam of Arab and Jewish Jerusalem (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The parking lot is open, but the escalators aren’t working yet at Atarot Mall, a new, two-floor, NIS 200 million ($54 million) mall built by supermarket king Rami Levy on the seam between Arab and Jewish Jerusalem.

About one-third of the 50 planned stores were open for business on Tuesday morning, and Levi was sitting with a cappuccino at Cafe Neeman, a bakery chain that was doing a brisk business in the new mall.

“I’ve waited for this for many years,” said Levy, whose supermarket chain, Rami Levy Shivuk Hashikma Ltd., is behind this project. “I remember going to Ramallah with my father when I was 12, when we used to go there easily. And as the years went on and things got worse, I had a dream that we’d be able to do this, here.”

“Here” is Atarot, the location of one of the largest industrial parks in the Jerusalem area. It’s at the northern end of Jerusalem, where Palestinian and Jewish neighborhoods brush up against one another, inside the expanded municipal limits where Israel has claimed sovereignty since the 1967 war.

The new mall is across the road from the security barrier, which splits the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Atarot adjoins Beit Hanina, a large Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood that is bordered by another Arab neighborhood, Shuafat, and the Jewish neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev and Ramot. Nearby but outside the city limits are the Palestinian town of Hizma and several other villages.

Just across from the brand-new mall is the gray concrete expanse of the security barrier that divides Israel from the West Bank (and runs through the neighborhood of Beit Hanina), a stretch of wall that makes for a vivid and potent symbol of the limits of coexistence.

It took five years for Levy to construct the 25,000-square-meter mall with its 13,000 square meters of commercial space, and even longer to receive the permissions he needed to build. He’s satisfied, for now, but said he’ll be expanding it as soon as possible.

He isn’t expecting any trouble finding both Palestinian and Jewish customers to shop at his new mall.

“I don’t care about the nationality of the people who shop here, work here,” he said. “Let’s talk less about who’s who. Let’s just shop together, serve each other and respect one another.”

This mall isn’t the first to be frequented by both Arabs and Jews. Shoppers are mixed at many of Jerusalem’s malls, including those in Malha, Talpiot, Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo and other neighborhoods around the city.

What’s different about Levy’s new Atarot Mall is its location right on Route 60, which runs between the capital’s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. The road continues north and south through Israel and the West Bank, where it has been the site of numerous terrorist attacks.

In September 2018, Ari Fuld, an American-Israeli father of four, was stabbed to death by a teenage Palestinian terrorist at a shopping mall at the Gush Etzion Junction, south of Jerusalem on Route 60. Rami Levy has a supermarket there. In February 2016, Tuvia Yannai Weissman, an off-duty IDF soldier, was stabbed to death by two teenage Palestinian terrorists while he shopped with his wife and baby at a Rami Levy supermarket in the Sha’ar Binyamin industrial zone, a few miles up Route 60 from the Atarot Mall.

Several right-wing Jewish lawmakers have called for banning Arabs from Route 60.

But the fraught, complicated and bloody history of so-called islands of coexistence along Route 60 left Levy unconcerned.

“People like to shop, and that’s what they’ll come to do here,” he said.

Indeed, on a cold January morning, staff and customers had flocked to the not-yet-fully-open shopping center.

The interior of the new Rami Levy supermarket at the Atarot Mall (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Officially, the mall will open for business on January 29, Levy said. For now, about one-third of the stores were open, while others were still stocking inventory. Some 35 percent of the store owners in the mall are Palestinian and some of the branches of chain stores are owned by Palestinian franchisees.

Customers, a mix of Palestinians and Israelis, were drinking coffee and eating pastries at Cafe Neeman, and wandering in and out of the stores that were open. Other stores, including branches of Children’s Place, Fox Home and SuperPharm, as well as WeShoes, Optical Halperin and Rami Levy’s supermarket, were still being set up.

Efrat Davidian and her parents, Sarah and Shalom Davidian, had driven over from the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot.

“We came to see,” said Davidian. “We have our own Ramot mall, but this is nicer. And our mall is open air, so it’s cold right now.”

“There are stores here that we don’t have in Ramot,” she continued. “I was a little scared to come here, but my parents weren’t.”

“We’ll come here every so often,” predicted her father.

“We drive around here all the time,” said her mother. “We drive on Route 60. Our mechanic is right over here.”

Patrons drinking coffee at the not-yet-fully-open Atarot Mall, January 2019 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Ayelet Milik, 30, from Nofei Prat, an Israeli settlement near Maale Adumim, was thrilled about having a Golf & Co. close to home. There’s also a Fox Home.

“It’s just a 25-minute drive from me,” said Milik, who usually shops in Maale Adumim and Pisgat Zeev, whose smaller malls don’t include many of the larger national chains.

Betty Mansour, the manager of Golf & Co at the new Atarot Mall, came because of the opportunity to work with Jews and Arabs (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Betty Mansour, the Palestinian manager at the Golf & Co., has worked for 14 years at Golf, and was the manager at the Talpiot branch. She jumped at the opportunity to work at the new mall after 14 years at Golf and after having served as manager of a branch in the Talpiot neighborhood, despite a longer commute from her home in Gilo at the southern end of Jerusalem.

“I liked the idea of coexistence at the mall,” she said. “People will need to get used to it, of course. But why not?”

It’s the first time that a store like Golf has come to Beit Hanina, said Mansour.

“A lot of Arab customers come to us because they love Golf, and they’ve been waiting for this,” she said. “Our products are very well-liked by Arab customers.”

Fahmi Jbouh was stocking inventory at Neeva, the women’s clothing boutique he owns with his wife (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Fahmi Jbouh, owner of women’s clothing boutique Neeva, lives in Beit Hanina, and was stocking his new store with their inventory of women’s wear imported from Turkey.

“It’s really my wife’s store,” he said. “We decided to open because there will be more business here. It’s a better location in a mall. We wanted to grow our business.”

The Cafe Neeman chain opened its 56th outlet in the mall, said Yaniv Neeman, scion of the family, who was working the sandwich counter on Tuesday morning. The manager is Amjad Awadalla, who franchised this branch.

“That’s how we always do things,” said Neeman. “Jews and Arabs always work together at every Cafe Neeman.”

Yaniv Neeman (left) and his latest franchisee, Amjad Awadalla, at the 56th Cafe Neeman, just opened in the new Atarot Mall (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sarah Jibrin, from Beit Hanina, was sitting with her friend at a table, sharing a long sesame breadstick and drinking coffee.

“I shop everywhere, at Rami Levy in Ramat Eshkol, at the Malha Mall, but this is better, so much closer,” she said. “I also like the idea that it’s Jewish and Arabs — why shouldn’t we shop together?”

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