Acre, Israel — The arched stone courtyard in the Old City here, on the country’s northern coastal plain, is filled with empty rows of restaurant tables.
On a normal Saturday, the plaza would be full, but the Gaza war has sapped most Israelis’ appetite for dining out. El Bourj restaurant owner Manar Khalaila can do little else except stare at the empty seats.
“This should be full of people,” he said. “We can barely cover costs. Some days we lose. The war is impacting everyone — Arabs and Jews. No one is in the mood to go out.”
But the shopkeepers and restaurateurs here say there’s an additional factor behind the drop in business: an alleged boycott by Jewish Israelis who want to punish the country’s one-fifth minority for speaking out against the war. Beyond just staying close to home, the Arab Israeli shopkeepers here believe that some Jewish Israelis are taking cues from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who called for a boycott of any Arab business that participated in a one-day strike in solidarity with Gaza.
“The war isn’t here, it’s there [in Gaza], but people here have emotions. Every time there is a war, it screws up relations,” said Khalaila, who says he blames “irresponsible” statements from the foreign minister for the drop in business. “I don’t know how they allow him to say such things. What they’ve forgotten is that we are living together, Jews and Arabs.”
On Tuesday night it was uncertain whether the sides are headed toward a cease-fire or another round of fighting.
“It’s too early to know where we are heading,” said Justice Minister Tzippi Livni in a conference call with North American Jewish leaders. “If Hamas wants to lift the closure, it could have done it and it could do it by not using terror. They want to create in the Gaza Strip a Hamastan, a new state. They are talking about a seaport and an airport and opening safe passage between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Such agreements would mean that they cannot have arms and target us.”
“The goal is not to appease Hamas to get acceptance of a cease-fire but to make right decisions for the future,” Livni continued. “We’re trying to see whether we can have new opportunities here.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held private meetings with Livni and other party leaders in his coalition Tuesday night to brief them on the status of the peace talks in Cairo.
Israeli media reported that the framework for an agreement to end the fighting would include the transfer of funds from the Palestinian Authority to pay the long delayed wages of Hamas officials; an Israeli extension of Palestinian fishing right up to six nautical miles from the coast; the delivery of building materials into Gaza but only under scrupulous supervision, and permission to bring 600 supply trucks into Gaza daily – double the present number.
It was reported that Hamas’ demands for the creation of a seaport and a modern airport would be put on hold.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz was quoted Tuesday as warning that if the talks failed, Israel would consider launching another ground operation in Gaza that might include an effort to overthrow Hamas and demilitarize Gaza.
By the time the Gaza war broke out in mid-July, Arab-Jewish relations in Israel were already raw. Amid the Israeli outrage over the June 12 kidnapping of three teenagers hitchhiking in the West Bank, Arab Knesset member Hanin Zouabi fueled a controversy when she suggested that, in her eyes, the kidnappers of three Jewish teens weren’t terrorists. The boys were later found dead.
When a Palestinian teen was brutally murdered in revenge, the outrage triggered riots across northern Israel that forced road closings and spurred scenes that were reminiscent of the October 2000 protests at the dawn of the second intifada.
The violence quieted down after Israel initiated an offensive in Gaza to stop rocket fire into southern Israel. But the protests didn’t. In Nazareth, thousands of Israeli Arabs protested against the war, and a commercial boycott was called. In Jaffa, dozens of demonstrators held Palestinian flags along with signs reading, “Stop the massacres” in Gaza. Anti-war demonstrations were also held in Haifa. Israeli media reported in recent weeks that the driver of an Israeli public bus refused to enter Nazareth in anger over the demonstrations.
A spokesman for Lieberman’s political party, Yisrael Beiteinu, defended the boycott call, saying that it wasn’t aimed at the entire population.
“It’s against all the Arab businesses that commemorate the grief of the children of Gaza,” said the spokesman, Tal Nahum. “During the war many Israeli soldiers have been killed. If they close their businesses, then we can boycott them. … They can grieve and protest the war, but if they close their businesses, we don’t have to buy there.”
The call by Lieberman and reports of Arab Israeli criticism of the IDF on social media is having an impact on Israeli Jews. According to a poll by the Israeli business daily Globes, 57 percent of Israelis supported boycotting Arab businesses whose employees express anti-Israeli attitudes.
The fallout is being felt in Nazareth and in Haifa, a mixed Arab-Jewish city like Acre. And in the Old City of Acre, even wildly popular hummus restaurants say business is down.
“Fear is separating both communities,” said Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an Arab-Israeli civil rights group, who said both Arabs and Jews in Israel stand to lose from boycotts.
He observed that vigilantism against Arab Israelis is on the rise, which he cited as another factor hurting ties.
“Boycott calls are incitement, and those who should be worried about it are members of the business community,” Farah said.
Shopkeepers in the Old City here describe themselves as victims of heightened political tensions on both sides.
“It’s usually full; now the streets are empty,” said Isam Ahmed, who runs a fruit shake stand in the Old City. “I have steady Jewish customers who I haven’t seen in two weeks. They’re not coming to the Old City.”
Despite the allegations of boycott, Ahmed and other shop owners insist there’s a strong atmosphere of coexistence in Acre between Jews and Arabs.
“We love each other,” he said.
Alongside the critical statements of Lieberman, they accuse political activists from Arab Israeli villages and cities in the Galilee of trying to spread the protests to the Old City.
“They came here two weeks ago from Nazareth to make protest with Palestinian flags,” said Ahmed. “We kicked them out. One of them brought an onion. I asked, why do you have an onion? They said, because there might be [tear] gas. I said, ‘Wow, you want to start a new intifada!’ I started to push them and told them to get out of here. I don’t care about anything else except for earning a wage.”
Another resident of the Old City made similar claims that outsiders tried to engineer an anti-war protest in Acre. “They want to raise the Palestinian flag here. But who suffers? Us, the residents.”
Back at the El Bourj, owner Manar Khalaila said that politicians on both sides have missed opportunities to boost coexistence and dampen incitement — and he made an appeal to Jewish Israelis.
“It can’t be in 2014 that there are still wars between us. Why? There’s room for everyone.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.