Abed el-Hamza says that from outside his aluminum workshop in Nabi Ilyas last Saturday, the main street of the West Bank village looked "like Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Street." He says that most of his customers are Israeli building contractors. Even early on a midweek morning when "Globes" visited the Samarian village, there were some Israelis taking advantage of the huge price differences - sometimes 50% or more - that can be found for goods and services in the West Bank.
Strolling along the main street of Nabi Ilyas, we met a man from Tiberias who needed bodywork and paint on the front left wing of his car and was paying NIS 900 at one of the village's garages for work that would have cost him NIS 2,000 in his home city.
We bumped into an Israeli Jew from a nearby Samarian settlement who comes here regularly to buy his cigarettes. A carton of L&M cigarettes, his preferred brand, costs NIS 220 here compared with NIS 310 in Israel. We asked in a nearby garage how much a 10,000 kilometer service would cost and were quoted NIS 350 compared with NIS 700 near Tel Aviv. A car wash, inside and out, costs just NIS 20 compared with NIS 50 back home. Hamburger meat at the butchers cost NIS 30 per kilo compared with NIS 50 on the other side of the West Bank checkpoint and a full lamb costs NIS 1,500 compared with NIS 2,000 on the western side of the green line. It's very cheap in Nabi Ilyas, 36 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv, and adjacent to the Samarian settlement of Alfei Menashe, and Israeli bargain-hunters are not scared to come here.
The risks were highlighted several weeks ago when Yossef Peretz from Beersheva and his 17 year-old son Liber were stabbed at the entrance to a dental clinic in the Palestinian town of Azzun, a seven-minute drive to the east of Nabi Ilyas. Peretz said that he had been coming to Azzun for dental treatment for the past year and had felt safe there. So much so that when a 15 year old Palestinian had asked Peretz and his son if they were Jews or Arabs, he had answered that they were Jews. The Palestinian teenager took out a knife and started repeatedly stabbing Yossef Peretz and then set upon Liber when he tried to protect his father. Fortunately, the Palestinian dentist Dr. Amin Mansour who heard the skirmish outside, came running out and managed to pull the Palestinian off of Liber Peretz, who was hospitalized in a serious condition in Kfar Saba but is now out of danger.
In the wake of the attack, Yossef Peretz thanked Dr. Mansour for saving their lives and said that he was now like family, and insisted that he would be happy to return to Azzun to continue with his dental treatment. "I only fear God, but I'll only go back by myself, without the children."
It can be assumed that for most Israelis hearing about the stabbing attack in Azzun, the very idea of dental treatment in the West Bank would seem very strange as well as irresponsible. But when you discover the differences in price between the east of the separation fence and the west, you can easily understand why some people are prepared to take the risk.
For example, just having a tooth extracted in a West Bank dental clinic costs between NIS 50 and NIS 100, compared with between NIS 200 and NIS 500 in Israel. A crown, which is likely to cost NIS 5,000 in Israel costs just NIS 1,600 in the West Bank. For a lot of Israelis who are struggling to make ends meet, this is the only way they can afford dental treatment for themselves and their families.
Prof. Aziz Haider, a sociologist at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem says that there are estimates that each weekend between 40,000 and 50,000 Israeli Jews and Arabs go shopping in the West Bank. "The Jews, very often know a few words of Arabic, know how to manage there and usually live close to the Green Line. Then there are also poor Israelis that come from further afield. I know of people from the Galilee that organize trips to the Jenin and Tulkarm regions to buy things more cheaply."
Prof. Haider explains that the large difference in prices between Israel and the Palestinian cities and villages on the West Bank is that the economy there is cash-based with no need to pay taxes. Moreover, high unemployment in the West Bank means people are prepared to work for very low wages. The Palestinian economy is dominated by a small number of traders who import in bulk and can thus keep prices down.
Shopping excursions to the West Bank by Israeli consumers were far more widespread before the Second Intifada began in September 2000. In the village of Biddya, for example, between Elkana and Ariel in Samaria, locals recall that millions of shekels would be spent by Israelis each Saturday. The extreme violence of the Second Intifada drastically reduced the economic relations between Israelis and Palestinians but did not completely extinguish them. From time to time there were cases of Israelis being murdered or attacked during shopping expeditions to the West Bank, or going there for a cheap car repair.
Over the past decade, with the security situation much calmer in the West Bank, only occasionally punctured by violence, Israeli consumer forays into Palestinian territory have been growing. There are no precise figures because of the clandestine cash nature of all transactions but it is clear that many millions of shekels are involved annually. From conversations with Israelis and Palestinians in the Azzun region, it becomes clear that the recent attack at the dental clinic was only a temporary setback. Money, it seems, talks louder than fear.
We meet Lior, a taxi driver from Ramat Gan who is cramming his car full of boxes of 1.5 liter bottles of Coca Cola from Abed Shatyub's grocery store in Nabi Ilyas. "I come here once a month more or less because the economic situation in Israel has put us on the poverty line. Look at the prices in Israeli supermarkets and then look at the salaries of most people and it's just not enough to make ends meet. Look what I'm buying. Things you need day-to-day. Basic products. The prices in Israel are so high that I'm forced to make my financial security a greater priority than my physical security. Every time I come I spend NIS 200-300 and for that I can fill up four, five or even six bags while for the same money in an Israeli I'd only fill up two bags."
Lior explains that he supports Benny Gantz and sees his shopping outings into the West Bank as a contribution to coexistence. He said, "Look I'm not scared to come here and my wife is no longer anxious that I come shopping here and she came with me on one occasion and saw that what the right tells us about the Arabs is not what is happening in reality. Generally speaking the way young Palestinians sees things is not different from the way Israelis of their age see things. Both sides want to earn a living in dignity and you want find a lot of ideology. You asked me about economic relations between Israelis and Palestinians. I prefer to call it economic relations between people."
Shatyub who is standing behind his counter and listening to our conversation, estimates that 90% of his customers are Israelis. The recent attack at the dental clinic in Azzun did see business fall for a couple of weeks but he is confident that turnover will recover. He is less concerned about sporadic terror attacks and more bothered by completion of a new section of Road 55, which makes it possible for Israelis to completely bypass Nabi Eliyas and miss all the tempting signs about cheap prices that have been put up in Hebrew along the village's main street.
In a hardware and building products store opposite the grocery store, there are plenty more examples as to why it pays for Israelis to shop in the West Bank. The store owner Murad Al-Khalif says that many Israeli contractors come to him to load up their tenders with cheap goods. He sells an 18 liter can of Tambour Superkryl paint for NIS 180 compared with at least NIS 250 in nearby Kfar Saba. A folding ladder in his store costs NIS 90 compared with NIS 150 in Kfar Saba. Al-Khalif says that sales are strong on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and confidently insists that Israelis understand that the recent stabbing in Azzun was an aberration committed by a 15 year old kid who has problems with his family. The Israelis, he is sure, will continue to flock to him.
Nearby in el-Hamza's aluminum workshop, he explains that Israeli building contractors come to him because, "I sell a meter-by-meter window frame for NIS 700, which would cost NIS 1,600 in Israel. I sell a kilogram of aluminum for NIS 20, which would cost NIS 45 in Israel and even something of much cheaper quality would cost them NIS 27. That's a serious difference. I also do contracting work myself. If you are building a house, I'll do it for NIS 50,000 or NIS 60,000, where an Israeli contractor would take NIS 100,000."
"I remember once that an Israeli contractor asked me to put up a fence for him. He paid me NIS 1,000 and asked me not to tell anyone how much he had paid me. I heard that he charged the woman who wanted the fence NIS 12,000. You understand?"
el-Hamza tells us his solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. "Look, it makes no difference to us who you choose as your prime minister, it won't help. They are all the same. If somebody really wanted to reach an agreement, believe me if you brought two building contractors to the table, they would close a peace deal in a minute. Why? Because only your building contractors talk to Arabs every day. Does Netanyahu understand what goes on in an Arab's mind? Of course not."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on September 21, 2019
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