A popular Upper West Side restaurant that proudly displays its support for Israel has been vandalized multiple times – leaving the owner wary when someone steps through the door.
Gazala Halabi, a member of Israel’s fiercely patriotic Druze community, told Side Dish someone scrawled “Free Palestine” in her restaurant’s bathroom on Monday — the second time the eatery has been hit with graffiti.
That latest incident followed the restaurant’s front door getting shattered after Israel began its war with Hamas following the Oct. 7 massacre, she said.
Halabi’s restaurant, Gazala’s at 447 Amsterdam Ave., may be the only Druze restaurant in New York City and the country at large, serving traditional dishes like hummus, and signature bourekas and mankosha.
Israeli and Druze flags stand at the front of Gazala’s.
That has led some Palestinian supporters to walk out once they spot the flag or leave when they look at the menu and see Israel listed on the map of the Middle East, she said.
“One couple yelled at the waiter, ‘Tell your owner that Israel has no right to exist!’” Halabi said.
“Excuse me, but didn’t they see the Israeli flag when they walked in?”
Halabi was born in Daliat El Carmel, a village near Haifa that is home to a large Druze population, an ancient religion whose descendants are found mainly in Israel, Syria and Egypt. Some, like Amal Clooney’s father, are Lebanese Druze.
There are around 800,000 Druze worldwide, with about 150,000 in Israel. Israeli Druze are deeply patriotic and fight in the Israeli army.
Halabi has been serving Israeli Druze cuisine — from her own family recipes — on the Upper West Side since 2007.
But ever since Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists slaughtered 1,200 people in Israel and abducted around 240 others, she has seen some of the regional hatred flare up in her own neighborhood restaurant.
“It’s like someone entering your home,” said Halabi, a divorced mother of two, about those desecrating her restaurant.
“How dare they! If you want to fight, go fight in Gaza. Not here,” she added.
When anti-Israel protesters have gathered nearby, outside the Natural History Museum, for example, some of the protesters end up dining in the neighborhood.
Halabi said she was worried that her employees would be frightened, and that some would quit. But they have stayed, and some are even wearing yellow ribbons as a sign of support to bring the Israeli hostages home.
“I still worry because I see that they are worried.” she said.
As for the war, Halabi says she feels for civilians everywhere but that Israel “will do what it needs to do to protect their country like any other country.”
That includes bringing home all of the hostages.
“I’m wondering what other countries would do if terrorists came and killed and kidnapped their people, including babies and children. The world needs to understand that,” she said.
Halabi, who has been in New York since 2001, was in Israel on Oct. 7 to visit family when the terror attack began.
“The whole country was going crazy. It felt like September 11 all over again. You couldn’t think. I was in shock, like the rest of the country,” Halabi said, adding that members of her Druze community began volunteering to fight right away.
Back in New York a few weeks later, she was surprised to see how much her beloved adopted city had changed.
“I was so sad and angry — and then when it happened to me [when the restaurant door was shattered] it made me even more angry. Who has the right? What, are you going to free Palestine from here?” Halabi said.
And yet, along with the hate, there has been love.
Some social media campaigns are encouraging people to patronize Gazala’s to show their support.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Joanne Malino, a mom of 13-year-old twins, popped in for lunch before a doctor’s appointment nearby.
“I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, but I was nearby, and I learned from one of my Facebook groups this morning that they could use some support, so I showed up,” Malino said. “We live in such a crazy world. I try to do the little things I can whenever I can.”
As an Israeli, “Gazala is subject to immense threats. You see when you walk in what’s on the wall — the Israeli and Druze flags. It’s a strong statement to have them hanging together in public view,” said Maxine Dovere, the executive director of Friends of OHR, the Israeli Druze Foundation for Academic and Cultural Advancement, over coffee at Gazala’s.
“She works nonstop, preparing the food and running the restaurant. The food is amazing. The recipes are hers, as is the hands-on preparation.”