Middle East Coexistence? On Aisle Two, Next to the Cornflakes

The parking lot started the amazing experience -- late model cars with Palestinian green and white license plates, interspersed with Israeli vans and jalopies with their black and yellow plates.

The Rami Levy supermarket is located a few hundred yards from the Gush Etzyon junction in the West Bank, 10 miles south of Jerusalem on the road to Hebron. Next door is a former Jordanian army fort, built at the strategic crossroads after the Jewish communities in the Etzyon bloc were wiped out in 1948.

The store opened in June and has been packed with Arabs and Israelis every day except on the Jewish Sabbath or holidays.

Rami Levy is a savvy businessman who over the years expanded his stall in the Jerusalem shuk into a very successful national Israeli chain. He would not have opened his new store in the middle of Judea -- the southern half of the West Bank -- if he wasn’t certain it was financially, politically, and militarily secure. Says my wife Shellie (the real shopper in our family):

My Rami Levy shopping is still a wonder to me: if I need a few items, I don’t have to shlep into Jerusalem, but can just hop in my car and in five minutes be at the supermarket. Today, as I was whizzing down an aisle in my jeans skirt, Lands End shirt, and crocs, I noticed five or six very well-dressed Arab ladies in their caftans and hijabs, probably in their late 20s to early 30s, checking out the store. They were speaking among themselves as they gazed and pointed at items. At one point a worker in his Rami Levy uniform came over to speak to them in Arabic. Later, I saw that they had finally settled in the shampoo aisle, comparing different brands. Women will be women.

Every customer -- Jew, Christian, Muslim -- gets “wanded” with a metal detector by a security guard on the way into the store. Once through the door, though, I’ve experienced an occasional “traffic jam” of grocery carts. Some Arab families -- often a whole family on a sightseeing trip in their holiday finery -- just freeze while they take in the sight. And, of course, one of Levy’s marketing specialists chose the entrance to stack a kind of cookies that the Bethlehem, Hebron, or village residents are attracted to. I predict that as Ramadan approaches, the store will packed to capacity with Palestinian delicacies and customers.

Press accounts, political pundits, and pontificating politicians portray the situation in the West Bank as bleak and insoluble. Perhaps that’s why I was in awe on my first visit, when I saw Palestinian families and Israeli “settlers” mingling in the aisles, thumping the watermelons and squeezing the plums. My checkout cashier was a Jewish woman from Kiryat Arba of Moroccan descent, on the cash register next to her was a blue-eyed Muslim woman from Halul, and working the register behind me was a member of the Bnei Menashe tribe from India who had formalized her conversion to Judaism.

I really shouldn’t have been surprised, however, since out here in the Etzyon bloc region we “settlers” had good relations with many Palestinian craftsmen and workers who live in the area. The intifada in 2000 quashed almost all relations and ties, but in recent months they’ve been reestablished. I’m back in touch with Khalil, who taught me how to prune my grapevines, and Mahmoud, who was the subcontractor on a construction project in my home 14 years ago.

Across the street from my house one Arab crew is currently working on the remodeling of a house. (Careful, they mustn’t add on to the house lest they violate the settlement freeze!) Next door to them is a Jewish crew remodeling another house, owned by a strong nationalist who insists on employing “Jewish labor.” But I think I’ve spotted workers passing over a bag of cement or facing stone if the other team had a temporary shortage.

Hebrew, Arabic, and English are the languages I hear in Rami Levy. Many of the Palestinian male shoppers speak Hebrew, indicating that they had once worked in Israel or the “settlements” prior to the intifada. They translate their Hebrew conversations to their wives and children.

From Shellie:

At the dairy case one male Palestinian customer wasn't sure if he was buying sour cream or yogurt. I looked at the bar codes and signs and read the numbers to myself in a low tone in English. When I pointed out the barcode and the products to the gentleman in Hebrew, he had already heard my English, so he switched to perfect English. English may very well be the second language in that store, especially for the Arabs from Beit Jala, Hebron, or Bethlehem who have no need for Hebrew, and their English is excellent.