x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Ramadan discounts lure customers back to West Bank's ghost town

Israeli-imposed security restrictions 'shut down' Hebron.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMEH SHAHINE
Palestinians shop in the Old City of Hebron on August 21, 2011 during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY SAMEH SHAHINE Palestinians shop in the Old City of Hebron on August 21, 2011 during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. AFP PHOTO / HAZEM BADER

HEBRON // An unlikely noise can be heard in the Old City of Hebron in the southern West Bank - the sound of Ramadan bargain hunters dipping in and out of shops and buying cut-price goods.

The crowds milling in the ancient streets are a change of pace for vendors here, who for years have suffered the consequences of Israeli-imposed security restrictions that brought business to a near standstill.

Israel says the restrictions are necessary to protect 600 hardline Jewish settlers who live in the heart of the city among a Palestinian population of about 6,000.

Palestinians here say the measures effectively shut down what was once the bustling heart of Hebron, costing shopkeepers dearly and turning the Old City into a ghost town. But the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, a group that works to revive the area, saw Ramadan as the perfect time to dispel some myths and draw shoppers back to the area.

They launched a campaign encouraging companies to slash their prices and set up temporary stalls piled high with bargains in a bid to attract customers.

"Our plan had a variety of elements," said Walid Abu Halawa, the public relations director for the committee.

"We wanted to reach out to traders and customers. We've facilitated transportation, decorated the city and carried out information campaigns, among other things.

"In cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce, 18 companies announced discounts and price cuts of between 25 and 30 per cent on their products and some also decided to open temporary shops here."

So far, the results are clear. Before Ramadan, only 154 shops in Hebron were open for business - the number now is about 300. This still represents just a fraction of the 1,100 stores that once opened their doors to customers each day.

Many closed in the face of tight security measures and occasional attacks from settlers.

But Mr Abu Halawa said the committee's efforts had helped boost the numbers of shoppers since the start of Ramadan by 80 per cent.

The festival marking the end of the holy month, Eid Al Fitr, is a time of gift-giving and many Palestinians flocking into the city were looking for potential presents for their children.

In one dairy shop, the crowd was packed so tightly that customers could barely move around each other to pick out cheeses, much to the delight of Wael Taha, an employee. "Since the beginning of Ramadan, the number of shoppers has multiplied several times over, as have our sales," he said.

"As you can see, we can barely match the demand of the customers but we really want to serve the people of Hebron."

Inside the store, Fatima Qadimat scanned for bargains after making her way into Hebron from the surrounding countryside.

"I heard about the campaign to lower prices through the media and the prices here really are reasonable and cheap by comparison with the markets outside the Old City," she said.