Last week the Israeli authorities agreed to re-open seventy Palestinian-owned shops they closed on downtown Hebron's Al Sahla Street. Al Sahla Street connects between the Ibrahimi mosque and the city's most important Al Shuhada Street, which links all sides of the city but was closed to Palestinians following the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, in which settler Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians praying in the mosque and wounded dozens of others.
Since 1994 the Israeli occupation authorities have closed hundreds of Palestinian-owned shops in downtown Hebron. Constructing iron and electric gates, in addition to numerous checkpoints, they have created isolated zones in the heart of Hebron, as well as developing the settlement project in the city.
Following Israel's announcement concerning opening of the shops, the mayor of Hebron, Dr. Daoud al Za'tari, and his council members conducted a press conference on Al Sahla Street. Al Za'tari announced that the shops were opening thanks to efforts by the Hebron municipality and Palestinian leadership. While al Za'tari noted that numerous other issues must be resolved, including opening the hundreds of additional closed shops as well as Al Shuhada Street, he called on the owners to reopen their shops and bring life back to this area of downtown Hebron.
Local Palestinian residents, however, view Israel's opening of the shops as an exercise in public relations, nothing more. This is because downtown Hebron will remain a ghost town, what with its checkpoints, iron and electronic gates and the numerous closed streets and alleyways. And without opening the main Shuhada Street, life cannot be normal in this area.
Issa Omro, a local Palestinian activist and coordinator of the Youth against Settlement group, told the AIC that “these newly opened shops will mean nothing for the city and its residents if the checkpoints remain everywhere. How will people reach the shops on Al Sahla Street? How will shop owners bring in merchandise? And how will local residents reach the shops if the street entrances are closed?”
“How can we imagine a normal life where hundreds of armed settlers are walking around and playing their favourite game of attacking Palestinians, houses and the shops?” Omro continues. “Without reopening all of downtown Hebron's streets, removing the checkpoints and the settlers, nothing will change,” he concludes gravely.
These and similar questions have been raised by local residents, as well as the Palestinian press.
The shop owners themselves are also asking these questions. “The matter is not opening the shops,” one of them told the AIC. “We need the city to be open. What is the meaning of reopening shops if residents cannot reach them?”
Hisham Sharabati, coordinator of the Hebron Defense Committee and field worker of the Palestinian human rights organisation Al Haq, says that “it is so difficult for people to reach the street through the checkpoints. Yesterday, several people wanted to pass through the checkpoint to reach Al Sahla Street, but the soldiers ordered them to go back. All of this happened in front of television cameras. And what will happen at night?”
“As an activist, human rights worker and Hebron resident, I see the reopening of shops as nothing more than empty words,” adds Sharabati. “On the ground, nothing will change.”
Sharabati explained that “already today there are dozens of shops in downtown Hebron which can legally be opened, but the owners choose not to because of the movement restrictions and human rights violations. The vegetable market in the city centre is an example. There are no orders closing these shops, but all entrances to the area are closed.”
Mussa Abu Hashhash, a field worker with the Israeli human rights organisation B'Tselem, concurs with Sharabati. “Just yesterday we documented two cases in which shop owners, who don't have closure orders, came just to see their shops. Soldiers arrived and told them to close their shops and leave the area.” Hashhash adds that “perhaps the shop opening is a temporary measure for this period of Ramadan, we don't know.”
I've known Hebron's downtown area well already from childhood, as we used to visit several times weekly for shopping and enjoyment. I still visit the area, now with international groups, and it changes from day to day. Settlers and settlements, few Palestinians out and about because of the closed roads and heavy military-settler presence and everywhere occupied homes, roofs and closed roads. One feels in a military station, not the downtown of a major city.
Ahmad Jaradat is coordinator of the social movements project at the Alternative Information Center (AIC)