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Minding your own business in Israel

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TESS VIGELAND: Today, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to resume peace talks.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressured both sides to stop the bloodshed after an Israeli offensive into Gaza left 125 Palestinians dead. It was Israel’s response to a daily barrage of rocket attacks. Cross-border violence would seem to make business transactions in the area unthinkable, but stores on both sides do find ways to survive — barely. Today we hear from the Israeli side.

Daniel Estrin reports from the town of Sderot.


DANIEL ESTRIN: A few weeks ago, chess champion Ilan Cohen called for shoppers, as he does from time to time. Ten-thousand Israelis arrived from all over the country. Simon Maman beamed as shoppers poured into his electronics and knickknacks shop.

SIMON MAMAN: They bought many things. Was excellent, excellent. At least something moved.

ESTRIN: Did you make a lot of money?

MAMAN: Of course. This Friday, like a half month what I do usually.

Sderot’s retail therapy lasted one day. Now Maman sits in his shop with the lights off. Maman’s staying put for now, but about a third of the residents have already left and the rest hardly venture out of their homes. The main downtown road is so still it almost sounds like a nature reserve, but on any given day this is the town’s typical wake-up call.

It’s the army’s Color Red alert. Danny Dahan owns a supermarket. He says it’s become routine. The siren wakes you up. You grab your kids out of bed, and you rush to the designated safe area in your house. For business owners like him, it’s a tough way to start the day.

DANNY DAHAN: You get to work already tired and stressed out. It’s really hard to concentrate.

He can’t play music at his supermarket because customers wouldn’t be able to hear the army’s warning siren. He can’t even announce sales over the loudspeaker because customers are so jumpy.

DAHAN: You know, like “Cornflakes, $9.90.” The ad makes people think it’s Color Red, it worries them.

When the siren does go off, customers flee the store, leaving behind their full shopping carts.

DAHAN: The workers have to put everything back, but often not before it spoils. Fresh fish, fresh chicken, yellow cheese, pastrami, ground liver it all goes to waste, and there is nothing you can do with it.

There are 700 businesses in Sderot. One-hundred of them have closed since Hamas took over Gaza a year and a half ago. Dahan’s supermarket has suffered a 50 percent loss in profits. His accountant says he must fire 10 workers to stay afloat.

DAHAN: I tried to fire an old man who works for me. He is a grandfather. He cried. He pleaded with me not to fire him, so I couldn’t do it.

Shmuel Malkiel had no choice. He owns a ballroom. In better days, there were seven weddings and 10 bar mitzvahs in his hall every month, but recently he had to fire all 30 of his waitstaff. It’s not that Sderot residents don’t get married, or have bar mitzvahs. They just party out of town, because none of their guests would dare to come to their city.

SHMUEL MALKIEL: Met.

“It’s dead,” Malkiel says as he switches off the lights in the gold-trimmed hall. It’s pretty spooky. All the tables are set, and the disco ball hangs in the dark. The ballroom is kind of like the town itself. It’s waiting for a reason to celebrate.

In Sderot, I’m Daniel Estrin for Marketplace.

TESS VIGELAND: Tomorrow we’ll hear from Palestinian business owners in the West Bank.

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