By EA Hannah, Southern West Bank.
Hebron has always been a centre of production in the West Bank. Hebron district accounts for a third of the West Bank’s GDP, and the city is the heart of the Palestinian economy with annual exports to Israel alone amounting to over 240 million dollars. However, the recent wave of violence and increasing restrictions enforced by the Israeli authorities is having disastrous effects for the city’s future economic viability.
Nowadays, the city is primarily known for its glassware, ceramics, and kuffiyeh scarves with the last remaining kuffiyeh factory in the West Bank. Kuffiyehs, made famous by Yasser Arafat, are a symbol of identity and steadfastness of Palestinians but are now also worn internationally as an act of solidarity or an item of fashion.The Herbawi kuffiyeh factory in Hebron opened in 1961. Abdul Azim, the manager, and his 12 staff of women and men produce 300 kuffiyehs a day (approximately 107,000 a year). Fourteen looms hum noisily in the background producing kuffiyehs for the West Bank and for export including 1,000 a month to the UK. The well-stocked factory shop has also become a tourist attraction. Despite all efforts, factory sales have declined in recent months. During October, 71 Palestinians and 10 Israelis were killed. A third of the Palestinian deaths have been in Hebron. This, in addition to the regular clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli military, has caused the tourist trade to all but disappear.
Other effects have been experienced by the shops near the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron, (the location of several shootings of Palestinians). On October 30, they were ordered by the Israeli military to close for 17 days, with no reason given. Furthermore, the old city’s souk, which is the historic centre of Hebron’s trade, is facing increasing restrictions.
On November 2, soldiers constructed a wire barrier blocking a side street into the souk, without warning or reason. This is preventing access to a small room that the shopkeepers use as a mosque, their bathroom, and where some store their stock.Jamal, one of the souk’s shopkeepers, and his neighbours plan to appeal this barrier but they are not confident of their success. The barrier is a violation of the basic human right of freedom of movement. Furthermore, Article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognises, “the right of everyone to the opportunity to gain his living by work which he freely chooses or accepts, and will take appropriate steps to safeguard this right”. If restrictions increase, Israel is at risk of contravening this international convention, to which they have signed up. Most of the shops in the souk have been in families for four or five generations. Jamal started working in the shop, which specialises in patchworks of traditional Palestinian garments, at the age of seven with his father. Now, at 54, he says, “there is no future here, no business”. He doesn’t encourage his children to continue the shop; “they have better opportunities elsewhere, my son is a civil engineer in Kazakhstan”.
These recent events follow a trend from the 1997 Hebron Accords when the Israeli authorities closed Hebron’s main commercial artery, Shuhada Street, to Palestinians. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1,829 shops have closed in the old city during the last 15 years and this trend continues.
Despite such commercial potential, the atmosphere of fear from the recent wave of violence and the increasing restrictions in several areas are hampering both Hebron’s economy and access to livelihood. A recent statement by the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process included a call for the easing of restrictions and stated that, “the city’s continued development is integral to the economic viability of a future Palestinian state.”