Midday streets stand empty in the West Bank village of Hizmeh. Israelis stopped shopping there when tensions rose amid violence in recent weeks. (Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

HIZMEH, West Bank — Natanel Cohen had just returned from 30 days reserve duty with the army in southern Israel near Gaza, and he needed a canister of gas for his stove.

It was a simple chore, made more complex by a geography that dictates so much of life here, especially amid heightened tensions in the wake of the month-long war in Gaza.

So before he headed out to the gas store he frequents in the nearby Arab village of Hizmeh, Cohen packed his gun.
“I’m not afraid. I have a weapon,” he said, nodding down toward a large bulge in his right pants pocket, as he shopped at Dwek Gas, where the number of regular Israeli customers has declined so precipitously that the owner said his sales have plunged from $3,000 a day to less than $20.

The complexity of human relationships between Arabs and Jews comes into sharp focus in Hizmeh. A concrete wall runs across the rocky hills separating the Arabs of Hizmeh from the Jews of Pisgat Ze’ev, a large Israeli neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

The stores all bear signs written in both Arabic and Hebrew, and many Arab merchants speak at least passable Hebrew, reflecting the large Israeli customer base. But few Jews shop here lately, following the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, an apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teen in July and the war in Gaza that currently is under a cease-fire.

“They’re too afraid after the war in Gaza and the killings,” said Gabbi Petton, 64, a taxi driver getting a sunshade for his car. “But it’s not a problem. All the Arabs here are our friends.”

Business at Ahmed Khalil’s laundry is down 70 percent, he said, standing amid neatly hung shirts and stacks of bedsheets. Some of the clothes and linens have been there for two months, ready for owners who don’t feel it’s safe to come to Hizmeh to pick them up.

Even when some Israelis venture into town to shop, the encounters can be awkward. Some merchants say they have gotten into political arguments with longtime customers who never discussed politics with them before.

Abed Kisswany, a merchant in Hizmeh, has maintained close ties with Jewish friends even as most of his Israeli customers have stopped shopping in Arab towns. (Carol Morello/The Washington Post)

Abed Kisswany, 50, who sells discounted shoes, jeans and T-shirts, said one customer came to his store and asked him point-blank, “Aren’t you terrorists?” He said he ordered the customer to leave his store and expects he never will return. But he said he also maintains ties with Jewish friends who call to inquire how he and his family are doing at a time of so much fear and anger that some Israeli Jews are boycotting Arab merchants. Then he turned to take a shoe order from an Israeli customer wearing a yarmulke, who cordially wished Kisswany a belated happy holiday for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.

Cohen, 35, said about half his friends refuse to buy from Arabs now.

“They don’t come because they’re afraid, or for ideological reasons,” he said. “They say we shouldn’t do business with them, because the money goes to terrorists.” But Cohen considers those attitudes short-sighted.

“We have to work with the Palestinians,” he said. “And if they will work with us, they will have a reason to be connected with us. It will be good.”