COVID and the Gaza war sucked the life out of Tel Aviv-Jaffa's Flea market

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Some weeks ago, Jaffa awoke to a morning of shattered shop fronts and car windows. The riots that spread from Lod to other “mixed” cities in Israel during Operation Guardian of the Wall in the Gaza Strip, had reached the southernmost part of metropolitan Tel Aviv, which boasts about its Jewish-Arab coexistence. Police officers and patrol cars blocked the entrances to Jaffa and advised business owners to close their doors; a good number followed the recommendations, shuttering their shops. Many residents left their homes until the worst was over and have since returned, but the masses who generally frequent the Jaffa flea market to eat, drink, hang out and shop, apparently prefer not to come back, at least for now.

Suspended in Jaffa: An empty road in Jaffa’s Flea Market.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Violent rioting involving Arabs and Jews lasted for days in the nearby streets, leading to vandalism and injuries, and exacerbated by the harsh police response, the war and long-simmering tensions.

It was empty here during the war. When we returned, Jewish and Arab regulars who come in for coffee embraced each other,” says Shira Petel, co-owner of Shaffa Bar, one of the oldest and best-known hangouts in the flea market. “There was such a feeling of reconciliation, like after a domestic dispute. Suddenly everyone acts calm and polite, and can’t believe how we got into this situation. We felt it in the shops, the businesses in area and especially with Arab customers. We suffered through the trauma together. Everyone is talking about what they went through during those days and how much sorrow they feel. One woman told me how for the first time in her life, she found herself suddenly crying while watching the news.”

“Jaffa is completely empty – to an extreme,” says Yakir Lissitzky, a member of the board of the local bar and restaurant association. “Because of the coronavirus, traffic is down 40 percent, because overseas tourists are not coming and now domestic tourists aren’t either. You can take a sleeping bag and camp out under the Clock Tower [a local attraction] because there is no traffic. I have never seen Jaffa like this during any previous military campaign – it is the most extreme situation we’ve ever had. There were only about 100 rioters, the vast majority not from here, who came to burn vehicles and some tires. After all, Jaffa cannot exist without coexistence. These people made a mess and disappeared, and we are left with this difficult atmosphere.”

‘Because of Waze issuing a warning to whoever’s driving in this direction, people think it’s dangerous here and do not come’

‘When we returned, Jewish and Arab regulars who come in for coffee embraced each other,’ says Shira Petel, far left, co-owner of Shaffa Bar.Credit: Eyal Toueg
The empty streets of the market during the latest Gaza war.Credit: Moti Milrod

Some business owners who spoke to Haaretz begged us to broadcast a “business as usual” message.

“Because of Waze [the GPS navigation system] issuing a warning to whoever’s driving in this direction, the heavy police presence, the roadblocks and the media – people think it’s dangerous here and do not come,” says one shop owner.

“The media destroyed our coexistence during the war,” adds Gal Einav, who owns a store in the market. “It will always be more convenient to stir the pot, but we are all in this together here. There is no hostility, everyone’s trying to make a living and some of us are involved in joint ventures.”

What remains of the charm in the once-bustling flea market seems mostly to be collectors’ junk spread out on dusty sheets.Credit: Eyal Toueg

“In general, we need any media coverage that will encourage normalization,” says Lissitzky. “There is no reason to be afraid to come to Jaffa. Do they want us all to close up shop and leave? ‘

A woman stands inside her market store, last month.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Shaffa Bar is now closed three days a week; on the remaining four it only opens until the late afternoon.

“The rioters were marching up Olei Zion Street, but we were not personally harmed,” says co-owner Petel. “I got out of the car and saw two motorcycles lying on the ground. My car was next to a burning dumpster.

“We thought that once we filled up the alleyways again, it would reassure people,” explains Imanu Haziza, who manages Shaffa. For people like her and Petel, who have been living and breathing the market for 12 years, the protests constituted an unprecedented trauma. Haziza, who lives on the border of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood, admits that she was so scared, she left her apartment – which in any case lacked a bomb shelter to protect her against any possible Hamas rockets aimed at the center of the country.

A man walks past a BMW car that was set ablaze next to a residential building near Jaffa’s flea Market, in May.Credit: Avshalom Halutz

Petel lives in the Tzahalon quarter of central Jaffa. “The whole neighborhood was abandoned,” she says. “We joked the whole time that if the Arabs want to get their property [from 1948] back, now is the time. Let them go door to door and say, ‘We’re coming home.’ Most people in Jaffa want to live their lives. There’s money here that Jews and Arabs make together. The merchants are brothers. They are our suppliers and our customers. There is lively commerce here. It’s true that there are also a lot of angry people here, but for the most part the atmosphere is positive. Everyone was been worried about what happened and wants to improve the situation. After all the drama, there is calm now. We are trying to be friendly and we welcome a situation where things are getting back to normal.

Economics and coexistence

‘The media destroyed our coexistence during the war,’ adds Gal Einav, who owns a store in the market.Credit: Eyal Toueg

In Jaffa, coexistence is a necessity – an economic one. A lot of money is at stake here, so the city is striving to maintain peace and coexistence. But here, too, the hierarchy is clear: Most of the owners of places in the flea market – businesses, restaurants, shops – are Jews. Some have an Arab partner or employ Arab workers. One of the store owners Haaretz spoke to said his Arab business partner did not want to be interviewed; he himself asked not to be identified, and he politely and nicely moved to the other side of the street.

One local restaurant owner spoke proudly of coexistence, but when asked if he had an Arab worker, he answered that he did – in the kitchen. The owner was not sure if the man is a resident of Jaffa.

There are some Arab proprietors of local shops and restaurants, but the vast majority of owners of those enterprises, of businesses in the realms of hospitality and nightlife, of commercial ventures and of course of real estate – is Jewish.

Jewish and Arab merchants working side by side can be found in the market at Amiad Square, among them antique dealers of yesteryear. Meanwhile, not far away at the eateries and bars, are liberal-looking young locals on the spectrum between hipsters and yuppies – Jews and Arabs alike who apparently believe in coexistence.

The Shaffa bar, in the heart of the market.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Changes in the now-quiet area are apparent: We pass by a new deli and, up the street, an organic grocery store that recently opened its doors. Even Shaffa, the local institution, has competition – a swanky coffee roastery that makes high-quality brews and attracts the yuppies of the neighborhood. Rather than featuring the usual vintage furniture from the market, the roastery stands out with its industrial, European decor.

The space for traditional commercial businesses here is shrinking, and what remains of the purveyors of the old “Alte Zachen” culture has been restricted to the so-called floor market at Amiad Square, where one can find partially broken toys, videotapes, knickknacks, old books and used appliances. Sets of vintage kitchen utensils with original nostalgic brand names are usually among the most sought-after products, and can be a bargain – but they can also be found in the flea market in Haifa for a third of the price. Thus, what remains of the charm in the once-bustling flea market seems mostly to be collectors’ junk spread out on dusty sheets.

Visitors to the main square of the Jaffa Flea Market.Credit: Eyal Toueg