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Ramadan deals draw crowds in Hebron's Old City

By Samih Shahine | China Daily | Updated: 2011-08-28 16:46

Ramadan deals draw crowds in Hebron's Old City

Palestinians shop in the Old City of Hebron on Aug 21 during Islam's holy month of Ramadan. Hazem Bader / Agence France-Presse

HEBRON, Palestinian Territories - 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 discounted goods. 

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

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

Palestinians said the measures have effectively shut down what was once the bustling heart of this city, costing local shopkeepers dearly and turning the Old City into a ghost town.

But the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, a group that works to revive the Old City, saw Ramadan as the perfect time to dispel some ghosts and draw shoppers back to the area.

So they launched a canny campaign, encouraging companies to slash their prices and even set up temporary stalls piled high with bargains in a bid to attract customers.

"Our plan had a variety of elements," says Walid Abu Halawa, 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," he said.

"In cooperation with the local chamber of commerce, 18 local companies announced discounts and price cuts of between 25 and 30 percent on their products in the Old City, and some also decided to open temporary shops here."

So far, the results are clear, he said. Before Ramadan, only 154 shops in the Old City were open for business. The number now is about 300.

That still represents just a fraction of the 1,100 Old City shops that once opened their doors to customers each day. Many shops have now closed altogether in the face of tight security measures and occasional attacks from settlers in the city.

But Abu Halawa said the committee's efforts have helped boost the numbers of shoppers since the beginning of Ramadan by 80 percent.

During the Muslim fasting month, families often prepare elaborate meals to break their sunrise-to-sunset fast, inviting relatives and friends to large meals that require plenty of ingredients.

The festival that marks the end of the fasting month, Eid al-Fitr, is also a time of gift giving, and many Palestinians flocking into the Old City were keeping an eye out 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 employee Wael Taha.

"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 the Old City from the countryside surrounding Hebron.

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

While the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee can take credit for the lower prices drawing shoppers, the city has another draw during Ramadan - the Ibrahimi Mosque.

The site is holy to both Muslims and Jews, who know it as the Cave of the Patriarchs, but its history of sparking tensions between the two faiths means tight regulations govern which worshippers can use the site and when.

Muslims have exclusive access during Eid al-Fitr and another major festival, Eid al-Adha.

They also have special access for the Friday prayers during Ramadan, when many Palestinians take the opportunity to pray without the usual restrictions.

"It's the fourth holiest place for Muslims ... and there is a great religious reward for praying here, especially during Ramadan," said Hijazi Abu Sneineh, head custodian of the mosque.

"Ordinarily, we might have 20 to 30 people praying here for the afternoon Asr prayer, but during Ramadan the numbers can be upward of 3,000 worshippers," he said.

Traders in Old City are reveling in the rare crowds now flooding into their stores. But one shop owner, who declined to give his name, expressed concerns that the customers could disappear as quickly as they arrived.

"All it takes is one Israeli soldier to take a decision, and the whole city will shut back down again," he said.

Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 08/27/2011 page6)

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