Tel Aviv — Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market is normally a cacophony of blaring Mediterranean music and bellowing produce merchants hawking a rainbow of produce. But on Monday, a Palestinian suicide bomber turned the open-air thoroughfare known in Hebrew as “the shuk” into a nightmare of screams and wailing sirens.
Yoseph Ezra, a 40-year veteran of the market who works at a cucumber stand directly across the from the blast — which killed three Israelis and wounded over 30 — said he first crouched on the ground for cover and then called out to make sure his son Koby, who works just two stalls down, was OK.
“There were shouts everywhere,” said Ezra. “People were yelling, Help me! Help me!”
The open-air strip of fruit and vegetable stalls is a microcosm of the country. Jewish and Arab merchants work side by side, bragging about sweet peppers or their gem oranges. Both blue collar and bourgeois Tel Aviv residents shop at the market, attracted by the throbbing life of the place as much as the discount prices.
And in recent years, the shuk has also become a magnet for the communities of migrant workers who live in nearby southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods. Several Asian groceries have opened in recent years to meet the demand from Thai, Phillipino, and Chinese workers for comfort food.
On Monday, witnesses spoke about the same microcosm, except they were talking about the blood-soaked victims they saw sprawled on the ground. A Filipino woman was believed to be among the dead, while the wounded were said to include a date and guava stall owner named Farid from the Israeli Arab town of Taybe.
The bombing, the first attack since Yasir Arafat left Ramallah to get medical attention in France last week — occurred at about 11:15 a.m. at the entrance to Shamai Cheeses, a popular shop in the Carmel Market. The force of the blast overturned produce counters, splattered blood on storefronts across the narrow walkway, and shattered the glass sign of a nearby stall selling fresh Middle Eastern salads.
“I was cutting a schnitzel, and then lifted my head and saw the explosion,” said Avi Chayo, a 28-year-old butcher who described seeing a fireball. “Everything was filled with smoke. And there was one person with a leg nearly severed.’’
Unlike many of the employees who have worked in the shuk all their adult life, Chayo said he began at the Carmel Market only six months ago even as he recognized the risks of working in such an exposed area. Chayo described the Carmel Market as a place of short tempers, though he denied that it was connected to ever-present threat of terrorism.
“People have know each other for years, and there’s tension,” said Chayo. “But its connected to work, not attacks.’’
The blue collar, religiously traditional, fast-talking stall workers typify the rank and file of Israel for many in the country. Many of the employees here start their day at 3 a.m. and finish at 7 p.m. The long hours forge a camaraderie strong enough to blur the distinction between Arab and Jew, said Ronen Gil a 37-year-old butcher who was in his shop about 50 meters away when he heard the bomb.
Gil, who ran to the bomb site, called the workers here generous and genuine. “I saw an Arab helping to evacuate people,” he said.
The businesses in the shuk are family-run, and successive generations find themselves sharing the same work space. Yigal Lublin said the trauma of the bombing on Monday brought back memories of an attack in the late 1970s — well before the outbreak of the first and second Palestinian uprising — which left his father critically injured.
Over the last decade, the Carmel Market has been spared of bombings, even though Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market has been attacked several times. On the busiest shopping day of the week, Friday, only a trio of police stand at either end of the market.
“We’ve always talked about why attacks happen in other places and not in the Carmel Market,” one vegetable stand owner told Channel Two news. “I still don’t believe it happened.”
But shop owners and salesman at the Carmel Market yesterday complained that that Israel’s police didn’t deploy enough forces to secure the popular outdoor shopping area properly. Two hours after the bombing with the market still empty of customers, a group of workers sat outside a bakery just a few stores down from the bombed out bakery.
“The mayor should go to hell,” shouted one of the group when a Tel Aviv social worker asked if they had any special messages for the municipality.
Oshik Meshulam, who has worked in the market for 13 years explained that there are 100 ways for a terrorist to penetrate the market from the adjacent alleyways. “One policeman at either entrance isn’t enough to secure the market,’’ he said.
The bomb left him shaking and in a daze for a good half hour, but after talking to family and friends Meshulam had collected himself. Tomorrow he would be back to work, like everyone else. Within two to three weeks, customers would be back too, others said.
“It’s over now, and tomorrow is a new day,” Meshulam said. “People have gotten used to this as the routine. There’s nowhere else to go.”