Hebron, a Success Story
Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.06.2006:
Some 35 km south of Jerusalem, Hebron, Al-Khalil in Arabic, is a city imbedded in valleys surrounded by green hills and mountains reaching 1,032 metres above sea level, rich with grape vines and olive groves. It is also one of the oldest, continuously inhabited human settlements in the world, dating back to more than 6000 years. The old city, also called Qasaba in Arabic, and the Ibrahimi Mosque are situated on the northern flank of a valley, at an altitude of approximately 860 metres. This relatively high altitude grants the city cool weather in summer and abundant rainfall in winter.
According to a 1997 census, the total population of the Hebron district was 390,272 inhabitants, representing 14% of the total Palestinian population residing in Palestine. The city itself has a population of around 123,000. The municipal boundaries cover a territory of approximately 30 km2. Around 67% of the population of the Hebron district (260,012) live in rural areas, some 3% (10,859) live in refugee camps, and the rest live in the villages around the city of Hebron, such as Halhul, Yatta, Dura, and Al-Dhahariya.
Hebron has the reputation of being a conservative and traditional city. No cinemas or places of entertainment can be found in it. There are very few restaurants and coffeehouses, compared to other Palestinian cities. Nevertheless, the city enjoys a rich community life, with a number of popular institutions, such as women and youth groups, and art centres. Hebron also has its own university, founded in 1973, and a polytechnic school. The observant Hebronites are known for their generosity and hospitality. Large families are the norm and most Hebronites live within their extended family and are affiliated to large clans.
Small to medium scale industry has been the backbone of Hebron’s economy for hundreds of years. Marble and stone masonry, leather tanning, shoe making, furniture, plastic, glass, ceramics and pottery are examples of such industries. In addition to that, Hebron has always been a hub of agricultural produce, especially grapes, plums, and olives, as well as grains and dairy products.
Essentially, however, most Hebronites are merchants and traders, buying or selling agricultural produce or manufactured products.
The story goes that about fifteen years ago, a pioneering Hebronite merchant travelled to China on a mission to import consumable goods. The task was obviously so successful that it started a trend for such activity. According to one importer, importing from abroad peaked some five years ago. Even under the current political unrest, the economic success of the Hebronite merchants has been remarkable. Today, it is estimated that around 300 merchants from Hebron take an average of five trips annually, importing merchandise valued at approximately 150 million dollars. Although imported merchandise comes from all over the world, the vast majority of merchants still target China. It has been confirmed that some merchants entered into partnerships with their Chinese counterparts, opening import/export businesses. It is also rumoured that a few Hebronites co-own Chinese factories.
On the lighter side, Hebron has become so well-know in China that the Chinese think that Hebron is an independent state!
The list of imported Chinese products is very long; it includes just about anything one can think of for household use (electrical appliances, furniture, china, ornaments, etc.), textiles, food products, sport goods, sanitary fixtures, electronics, communication equipment, etc., etc. Geographically located between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Hebronites have always seen themselves as the link between the two physically divided Palestinian entities. This has helped in marketing their products to Gaza and the West Bank. Their products have also penetrated the 1948 Palestinian market and, to a lesser extent, the Israeli market. In an interview with a merchant who imports goods from China, he informed me that, given the chance to move freely in Israel, he would flood the Israeli market with his products. A sale, he added, is difficult without physically meeting the buyer.
Although some concerned citizens as well as economists concur that the import business does not benefit the general economy of the people, particularly since the flow of money goes out of the country, there have been a few investments within the city of Hebron that have benefited the city itself. The Regency Hotel and the Hebron Mall are examples of such projects. The seven-million-dollar Regency Hotel was realized in July 1999. Built on an altitude of 1,044 metres above sea level, it is considered to be the highest construction in the West Bank. The modern, 4-star hotel is the first of its kind in the traditional city of Hebron. Even without tourists, the hotel, against all odds, is doing well by offering its services to journalists, local companies, NGOs, etc. The two-storey Hebron Mall is another economic project benefiting the city, mainly through attracting customers from the surrounding villages. The high-investment mall has a modern supermarket on the first floor and a large variety of stores on the second floor. A major shareholder agrees that the mall has helped change the traditional way of shopping into a more modern and cosmopolitan one.
There is no doubt that merchants from Hebron have done well. Their socio-economic formula of family-based businesses that work only on cash-basis has proven successful. Even with maneuverability seriously hampered, Hebronites are economically ahead. Come peace, Middle East watch out, here come the Hebronites!
Sani P. Meo
This Week in Palestine