Saturday, October 31, 2009

Restoring downtown Hebron

Walid Halawah stood on the roof of his office building for the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee. From there, we could see this major West Bank city spreading out in all directions.

We could see the mosque and synagogue built over the caves that both Muslims and Jews believe house the remains of Abraham, the father of both of their faiths.

We could also see the Israeli army watch towers on hills on three sides of the city, symbols of occupation. And we could see the refurbished buildings in the old city of Hebron, a symbol of both renaissance and resistance.

Halawah is the spokesman for this effort to revive and secure the future of central Hebron.
The tensions around the Israeli occupation and the establishment of Israeli settlements in Hebron, including some in the oldest parts of the city, have stifled what was once a thriving commercial center. Walid told us that 500 shops in this old are were closed by Israeli military orders "for security reasons." Another 1,500 shops have closed because of a lack of business. Road repair and building projects are stalled in Israeli permit red tape.

"These circumstances force people to move out," Walid said. His goal, and the goal of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee for whom he is a spokesman, is to get people to move back in.

He cites some statistics suggesting a bit of success. In 1996, the Palestinian population of the Old City area had dropped to 500. That was the year the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee began its work. Today, there are 5,000 people living in this area. Five green areas have been created for playgrounds. A vocational training school has opened. Buildings are being restored.
This is more than an aesthetic issue for the Palestinians in Hebron.

They are also hoping to block any efforts to connect the Israeli settlements through the downtown.
"As long as the downtown can stay, the settlements cannot be connected," Walid said. "That's why it is so vital to bring it back to life."

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