Internet clicks as a business lifeline for Palestinians, The

Internet clicks as a business lifeline for Palestinians, The

HEBRON, Occupied West Bank (AFP) – Famous for their ability to make money, Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank town of Hebron have hit upon the Internet as a lifeline to cushion losses from conflict, competition and severe local recession.

When the Palestinian uprising erupted six years ago, “Tiger” Sayed Ahmad packed his eldest son off to Britain and wondered how to keep local trade afloat after his most reliable customers — the Israelis — could no longer come to town.

Known for their hand-blown glass, hand-painted ceramics and leather shoes, merchants in this Muslim town, where politics and religion are subservient to business, did well before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared.

Plates with Hebrew script for Passover and Bar Mitzvahs, Koranic verses for Muslims, decorated ceramics for Christians, souvenirs for gift shops across Israel and Europe – all are made in Hebron for shoppers of every creed and color.

“The people of Hebron are like the Japanese. They know how to do good business,” grins Tiger, his nickname virtually from birth, as he steers his mini-van, complete with DVD player, around town.

His first idea was to take advantage of his Israeli ID card, which he says he obtained because his father saved Jews from local pogroms in 1929. The card allows him, unlike most Palestinians, to travel freely inside Israel.

He prepared an album of photographs of local Hebron goods, showed it to potential customers in Israel and abroad, and returned with orders.

Then three years ago, he visited a school friend in Bucharest who downloaded the photographs onto a disc. A website was finally created two years ago on the back of a Christmas fair in London, and was born.

Today the site showcases more than 1,770 items — glass, ceramics, confectionery and home furnishings. Under the sub-section “hotel needs”, it even has window cleaning supplies and sanitary towels.

A charming and voluble man, Tiger claims six million hits on the site over the past two years. It is he who puts Internet customers in touch with suppliers.

He calls himself a facilitator between Israeli and Palestinian, vendor and customer, who does his best to help Hebronites. He carries pictures of himself with the late Israeli and Palestinian leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

Hamdi Natcheh, who owns a glass and ceramics showroom in Hebron, has profited from the venture, and says online interest cushioned him against some of the losses incurred because of the intifada and more recently the Lebanon war.

“If someone throws a stone in Nablus, our work stops here because we’re working with tourists. When there are problems, no one comes,” he says, referring to the frequently volatile atmosphere in the northern West Bank town.

One of Natcheh’s employees ticks off queries from Malaysian and British contracts for ceramics and hand-painted goblets. They have also just had their first order from Australia — for blue glass worth $7,000.

“Since the website, we have had more business and more people interested, but these times are not easy because of the intifada,” Natcheh says.

His shipments are subject to delays and problems because of closures, and because the Israelis open consignments at the checkpoint outside Hebron, he adds.

At Nader Tamimi’s ceramics factory down the road, a handful of Palestinians paint plates as Tamimi discusses how to open a showroom in Saudi Arabia.

“For the local market, business is not good at all, but for exports it is good,” he sighs.

He sends ceramics to Canada, Europe and the United States, and Tamimi estimates his own decade-old website accounts for about 20 percent of the business.

Local Palestinian markets have been swamped by Chinese imports at a fraction of the cost, and these products have been lapped up by customers increasingly short of money.

Tens of thousands of civil servants have not been paid properly for six months because of Western aid boycotts affecting a quarter of Palestinians.

The World Bank has warned that 2006 looks set to be the worst year for the Palestinian economy, reeling from the aid freeze and Israeli closures, has predicted that 67 percent of the population will fall into poverty.

One Hebron shoe factory boss, who refused to give his name, recently had an order for 60,000 pairs of women’s boots for the Israeli army, with another in the offing. He has no compunction about shoeing those who occupy Palestinian land.

“If I don’t make them, Israeli merchants will make them in China and I won’t eat,” he says, adding that factories are closing in Hebron. It costs 60 shekels ($14) to make a boot, he says — impossible to compete with the 15 shekels ($3.50) it costs to make one Chinese-style.

Copyright AA Business, LLC Oct/Nov 2006

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved