KALKILYA, West Bank (Mar. 2)
Abba Cohen of Petach Tikva sat at the Abu-Flash restaurant in this West Bank town, wiping the last remains of hummus from his plate.
“They treat me here like the sheik of Petach Tikva,” he says. “Everyone greets me, asks how I am. They like me here.”
Cohen has made it a habit to visit Kalkilya at least once a week, for lunch, shopping or to repair his car.
The prices are good, he says, the people are friendly, so why not come?
Most Israelis do not agree with Cohen.
Kalkilya, with a population of 75,000 and located just across the Green Line, the pre-1967 border, from the Israeli town of Kfar Saba, used to be a mecca for Israeli shoppers.
Thousands of Israelis used to visit here on weekends to do their shopping at half the prices they would expect to pay in Israeli stores.
But then came the intifada, the six-year Palestinian uprising that began in December 1987, and Kalkilya became one of the trouble spots in the territories.
Israelis stayed away from the town, a bypass road was paved, the weekend shopping trips ceased.
Now, some 15 months after Israeli troops withdrew and Kalkilya came under Palestinian self-rule, local leaders are urging the Israeli public to return.
“The mayor of Kalkilya understands that only employment will guarantee peace and quiet,” says Mayor Yitzhak Wald of neighboring Kfar Saba.
Kalkilya Mayor Ma’aruf Zaharan says the need to improve the standard of living of his people lies behind the drive to get Israelis to visit.
“Of course, this is the reason,” Zaharan says in an interview. “Money makes the world go ’round, and it could be the fuel to keep the peace process running.”
Zaharan stood in the midst of Kalkilya’s vegetable market, where tomatoes, potatoes and cucumbers are piled high on the stands, priced far below Israeli standards.
Two pounds of cucumbers, for example, were selling at the equivalent of 70 cents.
Across the Green Line, at Kfar Saba, they would sell for $2 and more.
“The intifada is over. We have signed a peace agreement,” says Daud Mansur, a vendor at Kalkilya’s vegetable market. “The Israelis are welcome.”
A garment store near the vegetable market was selling top Israeli clothing brands at prices 30 percent to 50 percent below what they would sell for in Tel Aviv discount stores.
But the store was empty.
Local residents cannot afford the prices, and there were no Israeli shoppers.
Most of the Israelis who visit Kalkilya nowadays are Israeli Arabs, who feel safer here than Israeli Jews do.
Except of course, for people like Abba Cohen.
“I feel totally safe in this town,” says Cohen. “I have been coming here for the past 25 years — except when entry was banned by the army — and never has any harm been done to me.”
“Why, I couldn’t feel safer in Tel Aviv,” he adds.
Kalkilya’s police commander says it is his job to ensure that Israelis feel safe in the town.
“We have specific orders from our commanders to do our utmost to guarantee the security of every Israeli citizen who visits,” says Col. Azzam Daka.
Kalkilya may well be the pioneer among Palestinian population centers in seeking Israeli business.
Bethlehem, for example, Jerusalem’s neighbor to the south, has not taken a similar initiative. Nor has Jenin, to the north.
Local officials give Kalkilya’s mayor full credit for the initiative.
Zaharan, a former Fatah activist who spent two years under administrative detention in an Israeli jail, understands that whatever political developments take place, the future of Kalkilya is tied to Israeli business.
Zaharan has initiated a number of meetings with Kfar Saba’s mayor in an effort to build that future.
Wald says in an interview, “We are now discussing ways to create a joint workshop zone on the Green Line.”
The two towns have also joined efforts to secure a $20 million loan from the International Bank in New York to cope with local environmental problems, Wald adds.
Kalkilya residents, meanwhile, hope for an upturn in Israeli business.
“I remember the days Premier Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres used to come here, back in 1975, and eat shishlik at our restaurant,” says the owner of the Abu-Flash restaurant.
With a little bit of luck, he adds, other Israelis may soon return to his establishment.