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Hebron women turn to at-home businesses to boost self-sufficiency

In light of Israeli restrictions on residents of the Old City of Hebron, local women have turned to small projects to strengthen their steadfastness and increase their independence.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Residents of the Old City of Hebron in Area H2 that is under Israeli control by virtue of the 1997 Hebron Agreement are facing increasing restrictions imposed by the Israeli army and harassment from settlers. Israel is imposing restricting measures that include curfews, house raids, turning roofs into military barracks and closing down shops, as well as erecting checkpoints and restricting the citizens’ movement from and into the town.

Palestinians argue that Israel is seeking to remove them from the Old City and take full control over it, especially since it includes the Ibrahimi Mosque, which the Palestinian Authority (PA) succeeded in registering with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2017 as a historic Palestinian cultural landmark. Israel for its part declared in 2010 the mosque a Jewish heritage site.

In an attempt by the residents to strengthen their resilience and improve their economic situation, women have resorted to small domestic ventures.

Najah Zahdah, 41, a mother of six who started a project selling crocheted dolls and clothes, told Al-Monitor, “I graduated from a handicrafts class from a UNRWA vocational training center in 1999 but never thought about working until a few years ago. Given the difficult economic conditions and the blockade imposed on the old town, I began crocheting and sewing.”

She added, “I have been working on a small scale — I fix and sew clothes for my neighbors and friends, or upcycle them to fit modern fashion.”

She explained that a year ago, she began working on her crochet products, promoting and selling them in and outside the old town. She started displaying her products in some nearby shops and selling them to activists and foreigners who visit the Old City to document the violations of the settlers.

Zahdah can't leave her home unattended and go to work for many hours at a time, as the settlers and Israeli army would immediately try to put their hands on it, according to her. She said that she only leaves the house at specific times and returns early before the checkpoints close.

She noted that some women's organizations help her promote her products at their exhibitions. Zahdah put her products on display during an exhibition held in May in the city of Dura. She plans to participate in another exhibition on Aug. 17 in Souk al-Harajeh. These organizations also offer seminars and motivational and development programs to help women.

Zahdah had tried to open her own shop, but the Israeli army shut it down right away.

She said that her home project made her more resilient and allowed her to defy the Israeli restrictions that aim at pushing her and her family into displacement. In addition, Zahdah’s financial situation improved, albeit slightly, as she sells her products for between $5 and $30 each.

Jamila al-Shalaldeh, 55, told Al-Monitor that she had to abandon her project after the Israeli army raided her home several times. She used to cook traditional Palestinian food at home and sell it to foreigners and visitors at a small price.

She said that she is currently trying to restart her project, calling on women's organizations to support her so she can reopen her kitchen and sell food, since she is unable to leave the house for fear of the Israelis raiding her home again and settling there.

Sarah Daajneh, the official in charge of women's and children's affairs at the municipality of Hebron, told Al-Monitor that most women’s programs, especially in marginalized areas such as Area H2, focus on the development of women's skills. She said that economic support programs by the municipality also enable the women to start working from their homes, so they can support themselves and their families.

“It is very difficult to reach women who live in the Old City due to the tight measures and restrictions at the Israeli checkpoints. In some areas there are even barriers and electronic gates that one can only pass through by entering a digital code or presenting a permit,” she said. “We do, however, try to support these women and integrate them into the community as much as we can through small projects. We either find women’s centers to train them, employ them and help them to find a craft they can take up, or invite them to participate in programs we organize."

She added, “We try to promote their products when foreigners and tourists visit, and we display them in shops outside the Old City or invite these women to participate in exhibitions."

Daajneh pointed out that the municipality is trying to get women involved in politics and decision-making and to eliminate the traditional stereotypical conviction that women are not capable of political work.

She said that other obstacles facing women are electricity cuts, roadblocks and attacks on houses and mosques, noting that the absence of the PA’s control gives way for such violations by Israel.

Maysoun al-Qawasmi, a feminist and head of the Woman Program Center in Hebron, told Al-Monitor that women’s programs in the Old City mainly focus on raising awareness and economic empowerment, as well as documenting violations against women by the Israeli army or settlers. She said that empowerment projects include cooking, sewing, recycling of clothes, embroidery, crocheting and selling sweets.

“We try to strengthen the presence of women, enable them to have an economic presence in the Old City and provide additional income for their families,” Qawasmi said.

Director Sahar al-Qawasm of ADWAR in Hebron told Al-Monitor that her association works on gender and social development, economic empowerment and in the area of politics, as well as provides legal assistance to women and raises awareness among them.

She explained that ADWAR provides the tools needed for women to start their own projects, to strengthen their resilience, improve their economic situation and fight the harassment they are subjected to, pointing out that ADWAR helps these women to enter the private sector and promotes their products or features them on its website.

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