For centuries, Hebron was a flourishing economic centre, the most dynamic urban centre in the West Bank. The Old City served as a transportation hub connecting the city and the district to the rest of the West Bank. Thousands of passengers used to pass through Hebron every day. However, with the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Old City in 1979, a long economic decline began. A series of curfews and closures imposed since the beginning of the second Intifada has now turned the pulsing heart of Hebron into a ghost town.
As the settlements continued to expand, the central bus and taxi stations were closed down. The main commercial thoroughfare of the Old City, Shuhada Street, was declared off limits to Palestinians as settlers had moved into three nearby settlements.
Zahira Qafisheh lives in the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron (H2), the heart of the city.
"It is not only the closure of the street, but the closure of Hebron and the entire West Bank that has severely reduced our income. I and so many others here depend on the ICRC's assistance," says Zahira.
She and her family live in Shuhada Street. Her husband is dead and the family depends entirely on the income of the oldest son. But with the closure of Shuhada Street, his own workshop is shut. Today, he works in a shoemaker's, scarcely able to sustain his family. Since the beginning of the second Intifada, they depend on the monthly food parcels donated by the government of the United Arab Emirates and distributed by the ICRC.
The ICRC has appointed six shopkeepers in H2 to stock and distribute the monthly parcels to the 1750 families severely affected by the closures. The parcels contain basic goods, like lentils, flour, olive oil, coffee, tea and sugar.
The three days when the parcels are distributed in the Old City of Hebron are probably its busiest days of the month. People come to fetch their packages and boys wait with trolleys in front of the shops, hoping to earn a little money by carrying the supplies. People meet in the streets and chat, and some shops may even sell a few items.
"This parcel allows us to offer you a coffee", says Zahira smiling, when we arrive at her home. We met her son-in-law at Abdel Affiz' shop in the Old City where he picked up the parcel and followed him on a very curious journey through the Old City, through the stairways of unknown families, climbing ladders and crossing rooftops to finally reach Zahira's home.
The entrance to her house lies on Shuhada Street but is closed off even though the family received a permit to use the street two months ago. Settlers threaten them if they enter the street, says Zahira.
"My grandson had never put a foot on this street," she says, "The day we received the permit he insisted so much that we should go down to the street that he had only ever seen from above. I took him down but we were not even out one minute when a settler came and threatened us. Despite the permit, which I have only used twice when we had a medical emergency, we continue to climb over our neighbour's roof."
"The economic situation is already difficult. But we can manage it somehow, especially with the ICRC's assistance. It is the added psychological pressure that we are living under that makes the situation almost unbearable," Zahira says. "We are isolated. We depend on the goodwill of our neighbours to use their stairways and roofs to come and go and to receive visitors. We can't abuse our neighbours' goodwill. Our social life has become very limited."