Israeli store opening focuses West Bank anger

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — It’s not often that model Bar Refaeli gets a cold reception.

But when a black-and-white poster of the smiling Israeli beauty went up last week in the West Bank city of Ramallah, it became a target of Palestinian anger because of the message that accompanied her picture: “Fox: Coming Soon.”

Fox is a popular Israeli clothing chain, and the opening of an officially branded store in Ramallah seemed to cross an unspoken red line. It’s a reminder of the schizophrenic economic life in the Palestinian territories. Though the region is flooded with Israeli goods, the brands can both be respected for their quality and resented for their symbolism.

The advertisement launched a social media firestorm, with one person even suggesting firebombing a store that sells trendy clothes and jeans. Hosts on the normally deferential Voice of Palestine radio station even made heated comments on about the potential opening.

On Monday, the sign was gone. Neighbors said they have not seen the owner at the store in several days, suggesting he might be keeping a low profile because of the controversy.

In a region of symbols, the image of the 28-year-old Refaeli also carries its own hang-ups. The model has appeared in public relations campaigns by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and frequently talks up her Israeli identity in the media, matters not lost on Palestinian social media critics.

Yet despite the uproar, Fox is already a popular brand in the Palestinian territories. Store owners stock Fox products even in Hamas-controlled Gaza, where the government is far more hostile to Israel.

“People in Gaza know that these items are made in Israel, but they buy them because they’re good quality,” said shopkeeper Raji Isaac, who has offered Fox products in his Gaza City store for the past four years. “Customers always look for good products and reasonable prices, and Fox is offering that.”

The economies of Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank remain deeply linked, despite limited Palestinian self-rule in parts of the territory where more than 90 percent of Palestinians live. Israeli companies sent $3.8 billion in goods and services to the West Bank last year alone, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. That makes the territories Israel’s third-largest export market, ahead of world economic powers like the United Kingdom and China.

But Palestinians complain that security restrictions imposed after the Palestinian uprising in 2000 have made that trade a one-way flow. Palestinian goods are carefully inspected at Israeli border checkpoints. Israel’s military governing body in the occupied territories also limits the number of work permits issued to Palestinian laborers that allow them to cross into Israel.

Even when Israel attempts what it views as a goodwill gesture for West Bankers, it can work against Palestinian businesses. Last year, the Israeli military began drastically scaling back restrictions on Palestinian movement during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. That meant that thousands of Palestinians were able to get entry permits to Israel not only to pray or visit family, but also to shop.

Rama Mohammed, who works in a Ramallah retail store that stocks Fox and other Israeli brands, complained that she lost many of her clients as a result of the permits being issued. She said that people often now prefer to shop in Jerusalem, where they can find cheaper prices.

A Palestinian movement that calls for governments and corporations to cut all economic ties with Israel until it leaves the Palestinian territories is particularly critical of Palestinian consumers.

Omar Barghouti, a founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, says the widespread use of Israeli products deepens Palestinian dependence on Israel. He objects to any use of Israeli products, regardless of the name on the storefront.

“It undermines our struggle for freedom and justice in return for selfish personal gains by greedy businessmen who lack principles,” Barghouti said.

And Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian activist, has argued against giving Israeli companies opportunities unavailable to Palestinian ones. “Israel doesn’t allow our companies to have branches in Haifa and Jaffa, why should we allow their companies to have branches in Ramallah?” he asked.

BDS campaigners and other Palestinians have attacked the Palestinian Authority for granting business permit to Fox and plan a protest outside the planned Fox outlet Sunday.

Palestinian officials declined to comment earlier in the week about the new store, but the Economics Ministry appeared to be trying to distance itself from the Israeli company Thursday.

The ministry said in a statement that it did not deal with Fox concerning a business license “because Fox has that permission registered by another company.”

Fox did not respond to repeated requests for comment by The Associated Press.

Despite the pressure, it appears the store will open. Fox CEO Harel Wizel told Israeli news site Ynet on Wednesday that the Ramallah store is set to open in a month and that he is not aware of any change in plans.

Asked about the uproar in Ramallah, he said: “I don’t place too much importance on it.”

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Rosenthal reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.

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Follow Max J. Rosenthal on Twitter at www.twitter.com/abuzilif .

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