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.

Summer boredom is probably the supermarket’s worst foe right now. Some local Arab youth a mile down the road in the direction of Hebron have resumed their occasional rock throwing at Israeli cars. (Contrary to the propaganda claims of “apartheid roads,” Route 60, the major thoroughfare here, is open to all -- Muslim and Jew -- who too often and tragically compete for the most reckless driver award.) Some local rabbis have expressed concern that young Arab male workers and stockboys will chat up and flirt with Jewish women workers, and indeed I saw the light banter between them behind the bakery counter one day.

Knives and boxcutters are tools of the trade in supermarkets, just as knives were once the weapon of terrorists during the early stages of the intifada. One sign of newfound trust can be seen behind the butcher counter where almost all the men are Arabs, working in the Etzyon store as well as Levy’s Jerusalem stores with the largest and sharpest knives.

A boycott of settlement products is supposed to be in force in the Palestinian Authority, but that’s certainly not enforced at the supermarket. According to one blogger’s account:

I spoke to one Palestinian at the Rami Levy supermarket and she explains her reasons for abandoning the Palestinian shops: "Although it is far and needs more time, children enjoy the trip and feel they got out of jail, and I can find the goods that I want with low prices. Milk in Rami Levy is 9 shekels, while in Palestinian shops it’s 12 shekels, and this in itself is a big difference, not to mention other goods and offers."

Abeer Taweel went once to see what is this "Rami Levy" everyone is talking about, to only find all her relatives and neighbors and acquaintances there purchasing all their needs for the whole week.

And Shellie:

Meanwhile, I needed my zucchinis. Last Thursday, I also arrived to find an empty zucchini bin, and I believe that prices are so good at Rami Levy’s that some produce sellers -- Israeli and Palestinian -- buy in bulk, and always on Thursday. Last week when I asked the produce worker (an Arab) what happened to the zucchinis, he just said, "Nigmar, Chalas, finished." Today, he was a bit more sympathetic. “A new truckload just came in,” he said in Hebrew. “Go do a ‘sivuv’ round of shopping and come back.” So as he finished putting out the okra, I left him to do another sivuv in the store. I came back and he was now doing the carrots. "Madam, go do another sivuv. I'll get to them." So, around again I go. After I rechecked the store, I returned to the produce department. True to his word, he had wheeled out the zucchinis. He really didn't have to restock the bin; everyone was descending on his cart and his pot of gold: fresh zucchinis at four shekels a kilo (about 50 cents a pound). I thanked him, and with a smile he said in Hebrew, “you’re welcome.”

A word of caution: I’m still on a slightly heightened state of alert -- yellow, to use Homeland Security’s code -- as I walk around Rami Levy. In the late 1990s and even in early 2000, there were several encouraging and productive joint Palestinian-Israeli products, but the Palestinian Authority -- then led by Yasir Arafat -- decided to abandon the road to peace and prosperity and chose to launch the bloody intifada that left thousands of Palestinians and Israelis dead and wounded.

Incredibly, none of the major Western newspapers have visited and reported on the Rami Levy phenomenon in Gush Etzyon, at least according to Google. One senior correspondent for a top American newspaper thanked me “for the tip,” but not a pixel has shown up in her paper. Can it be that the coexistence in aisle 2 and cooperation behind the meat counter run against the media narrative that Israeli “settlers” and Palestinians can never live together?

Maybe we’ll finally meet up with the press when Rami Levy opens his pizza shop and the catering hall on the second floor.