Palestinians are striving to revive Hebron’s historic center by introducing a fleet of horse-drawn carriages and cash incentives for businesses and families.
The old center once heaved with shoppers but rights groups say Israeli restrictions and harassment by about 650 settlers — some of the West Bank’s most militant — have forced out thousands of Palestinian residents since the Intifada, or uprising, began in 2000.
Many shops are now shuttered and deserted alleyways are dotted with bullet-proof bunkers and military watchtowers, which Israel says are needed for security reasons. Palestinians are banned from taking cars into the center.
Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has offered to pay local merchants $200 a month to open shops in the abandoned market. A few now sell embroidery, spices and household staples.
With tactics reminiscent of those used by the settlers themselves, the HRC — funded by the Palestinian Authority and European donors — is trying to reclaim the city by revamping old buildings and letting Palestinians live there for free.
"We are trying to revitalize life in the old city," said Emad Hamdan, head of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC). "Parts of Hebron have been reduced to a ghost town and we are trying everything we can to bring Palestinians back."
The fleet of horse-drawn carriages, which started ferrying passengers around the old city just over a month ago, is the latest Palestinian weapon against settler encroachment and Israel’s network of roadblocks, gates and checkpoints.
Hamdan hopes the novel mode of transport will attract visitors, but more importantly, encourage local shoppers to make the trip, which can take 20 minutes on foot, from the edge of the old city where cars must stop into the center.
"There’s no transport in the old city so it’s nice," said 22-year-old student Isa Frokh as he clambered into a horse buggy. "I use the carriages to do my shopping and to go and pray at the mosque — I probably go more often now I don’t have to walk."
Home to the grave of Prophet Abraham, revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, Hebron has seen some of the region’s bloodiest violence.