RAMALLAH, West Bank — A new shopping center in the Atarot Industrial Zone, between Ramallah and Jerusalem, has Palestinians grappling with how to respond to it. Atarot Mall, built by the Israeli supermarket magnate Rami Levy on the western side of the separation wall, is promising high-quality goods at low prices and jobs for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Many, however, see the mall as a threat to Palestinian-owned shops in East Jerusalem and have called for Palestinian merchants and consumers to boycott it.
The shopping center, inaugurated Jan. 11, is part of a chain that also has branches in Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in Jerusalem. What differentiates the Atarot branch is its location on Route 60, the highway that separates the northern and southern parts of the West Bank and is used by Palestinians as well as Israeli settlers. Also of note is that Palestinian merchants from Jerusalem have purchased or rented space in the mall, which will have a reported 50 stores.
The shopping center embodies Levy’s policy of promoting economic coexistence and normalization between Jews and Arabs. He has pursued these policies through Rami Levy Hashikma Marketing, Israel's third largest supermarket chain, which hires Muslim, Christian, and Jewish workers and caters to both the Arab and Jewish communities.
In an article and video posted Nov. 20, 2017, to the website for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Levy said, “In Judea and Samaria we have four branches. … I think that coexistence needs to come from here. To show that it is possible to live together, to work together, and serve each other in a fair and moral way.”
Levy, who invested 200 million shekels ($54 million) in the new shopping center, which took two years to build, told COGAT that 65% of the merchants will be Jews and 35% Palestinians. “We treat everyone here equally,” he said. “Everyone wants to make this center a success.”
Various Palestinian parties have called for boycotting the mall. In a Jan. 8 statement, Fatah asserted, “Buying and renting shops or shopping there is a betrayal of the homeland.”
The day before, the Palestinian National and Islamic Forces, some of them PLO affiliated, and the Palestinian Society for Consumer Protection released a press statement calling for a boycott and urged Jerusalem merchants to refrain from opening shops in the mall, claiming that the shopping center is contributing to the “expansion of the settlement project in Jerusalem.” They further called on the PLO and the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Economy to take action along the lines they suggested and also to implement a boycott of Palestinian businesses with stores in the shopping center.
Atarot Mall is located close to Beit Hanina and Shuafat, where thousands of Palestinians live, and the Pisgat Zeev and Ramot settlements. Although Levy might see the location as perfect for attracting Jewish and Palestinian customers alike, some opposed to the mall are concerned that the center's location threatens to negatively affect the commercial activity of small Palestinian shops north of Jerusalem, luring Jerusalemites from them with lower prices.
“This settlement shopping mall is part of the ongoing Israeli practice aimed at strangling the Palestinian economy in Jerusalem and putting pressure on Jerusalemite merchants to limit any economic activity that strengthens the steadfastness of citizens,” Palestinian Economy Minister Abeer Odeh said in a Jan. 8 press release.
Azmi Abdul Rahman, director general of economic policies at the Ministry of Economy, told Al-Monitor that his ministry, in cooperation with others, will address the situation in accordance with Decree no. 4 of 2010 Concerning the Prohibition and Control of Settlement Products, issued by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The law stipulates that anyone who trades in settlement products or provides a settlement-related service shall be fined according to the provisions of the law, which applies to all lands occupied by Israel during the June 1967 War. Although the PA does not have the authority to implement the law against Palestinian merchants in Jerusalem, it can prevent those who open shops in Levy’s mall from opening shops in Palestinian cities, like Ramallah.
In one sign of opposition, on Jan. 8 Palestinian youths lobbed Molotov cocktails over the separation wall from the town of al-Ram, causing minor damage to the parking lot and prompting shoppers to scatter.
Rita Abu Ghosh, media coordinator of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, told Al-Monitor, “The BDS movement considers anyone taking part in the mall to be working with the occupation and must be boycotted.”
She said that BDS in cooperation with the National Labor Authority, a Jerusalem-based NGO comprised of political, national and religious figures, had succeeded in dissuading prominent merchants from Jerusalem not to open stores in the mall. One of them owns a large electronics company that was supposed to occupy an entire floor, and another owns a mobile phone business.
Abu Ghosh remarked that BDS also contacted several owners of small shops, such as those selling bread, shoes or clothes, but the majority refused to withdraw from the mall because of the potential benefits, such as expected high demand for their goods, or for fear of having to pay hefty fines should they withdraw from their lease agreement.
Salah Haniyeh, head of the Palestinian Society for Consumer Protection, told Al-Monitor that to compete with the lower prices at the shopping center, many shops in Jerusalem have begun to offer discounted prices themselves, which benefits Palestinian shoppers. Large commercial centers in the West Bank are doing the same, he noted, which allows them to argue against claims by shopping center businesses that they offer lower prices.
He called on the Chamber of Commerce in Jerusalem to create a committee to follow-up on the possibility of Palestinian merchants getting out of their shopping center contracts and helping them to bear the financial burden of doing so. Haniyeh asserted that Levy had purposely pursued Palestinian merchants for the mall to make Palestinian consumers, as a target audience, feel more comfortable shopping there.
Although the primary purpose of Atarot Mall is to generate economic activity, it also appears that normalization of economic relations between Palestinians and settlers could be at the expense of the Palestinian economy in East Jerusalem and its environs and efforts by the Palestinian Authority and the BDS movement to boycott settlement products.
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