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Morning Coffee
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
February 18, 2004

Morning coffee on Rechov Hapalmach in'd think it would be a banal event. But little about life here could be described as banal or routine.

On the street named for the Palmach, (abbreviation for plugot mahaz--assault companies) the striking force of the Haganah, the precursor to the Israeli Defense Forces, a new cafe opened a few months ago. It's a small, trendy place with a few tables on the sidewalk. For a few weeks after the opening, people thought that the neighborhood bakery and cafe a few stores down the block would have its business severely curtailed as customers flocked to the new place.

But loyalty and habit are hard to break, and the old place, that hasn't seen a renovation in years, is still going strong. There's nothing particularly charming about the decor, but the neighborly atmosphere, pleasant service and decent baked goods attract.

This morning, I had to wait for a table there, as the regulars enjoyed their lattes and croissants. The plain little tables are so closely packed together that it's sometimes difficult to refrain from taking part in the conversation next door.

Today, the chattering was in the usual four languages heard in our neighborhood. Hebrew, English, French and Russian.

Buried in the morning paper, it took me a few minutes before I heard the knocking on the cafe door in front of me. Outside was a bedraggled middle aged man sitting in an electric wheelchair. The door is wide enough, so I figured he wanted to come in. But when I went to open the door, he stayed put and politely asked for any spare change.

The owner jumped up to open the till and take out some money, added a handful of borekas and with a smile and a pleasant word gave them to his "customer." Almost everyone sitting inside forked over a few shekel for the man who resolutely waited outside the door.

Just as he turned to whirr away down the sidewalk, an old woman in traditional Arab garb--long black dress with red and pink embroidery and a white headscarf came walking through the door. In her hand was a large empty plastic bottle. Without so much as a glance around the room, she walked behind the cash register over to the sink and filled up. With a wave and an "ahlan " (the Arabic version of shalom) one of the waitresses acknowledged the woman, handed her a pastry and went back to her chores.

We all recognized the woman as one who squats outside the nearby supermarket on sunny days trying to interest shoppers in her fresh vegetables. In the late fall she lays out cardboard boxes of olives and green onions on the ground next to her, right now it's celery and all kinds of fresh herbs, and through the summer there are cucumbers, zuchinni and eventually figs. Haggling is the order of the day, and she's been known to yell and spit if she doesn't like your offer.

Long before the current violence, a bomb went off in this supermarket in this residential neighborhood back in the late 1980s. Today, a bored, elderly unarmed security guard cursorily passes his wand over my bag at the entrance.

Now, despite talk of closures, fences and occupation, the real story is what's being played out on the streets of Israel's cities.