With the illegal Jewish settlements in the heart of the city, Hebron reflects the grim reality of the Israeli military occupation. For the past 14 years, ‘Women in Hebron’, the only cooperative run solely by women in the Old City market, has been fighting the occupation by empowering women and their community through the production and sales of Palestinian handicraft items.
Their work started in 2005, when founder and former director, Nawal Slemiah, began selling items in the Old City market in the Israeli-controlled H2 sector, a short distance from the Ibrahimi Mosque.
The cooperative is now run by Nawal’s sister, Leila Hasan, who took over the business after recent family emergencies.
Laila told Palestine Monitor the organisation in itself has always been an act of community strengthening; honouring the role of women in the society and providing their families with additional income that could not otherwise be obtained.
“When you empower women, economically, then we start to be strong enough to defend our rights in the society and help fight the occupation,” Leila explained.
After the second Intifada began in 2000, their community was on the brink of collapse, as many of the men who were active during the struggle ended up either arrested or killed, including Nawal’s husband who was arrested for 12 years.
With no source of income, the women had to think about different ways to survive.
Embroidery as a heritage of Palestine.
Since 2005, Women in Hebron has expanded significantly. At one point, 150 women from the Hebron district worked within the cooperative.
They were able to open a small community centre in the village of Idna, located to the southwest of Hebron district, where they manufacture the products, participate in educational programs, and socialise with other women in similar situations.
One of the women who work in the manufacturing part of the cooperative, Alyia Ebeid, told Palestine Monitor that besides empowering women and the community, the work helps them cope with the harsh daily reality they face.
“I believe that in this art, when the women put all their minds into it, we can forget about the bad things, about the problems that surround us,” Alyia said.
A tale of two cities
In 1997, as a part of the Interim Agreements during the Oslo Accords, the “Hebron Protocol” saw the partition of the city into two zones called H1 and H2. H1 was to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) while H2 was to be fully controlled by Israel.
According to B‘tselem, H2, which is made up of roughly 20 per cent of the occupied city, is home to approximately 40,000 Palestinians and 800 settlers who live in small, fortified compounds protected by around 2,000 Israeli soldiers.
Many settlers live in apartments above the Palestinian shops of the Old City. The two are separated by barbed wire and metal fences.
Settlers surrounded by soldiers on the ‘tour’ that happens every Saturday.
A few families were able to move back into the Old City, encouraged by the internationally funded Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), which has slowly been able to renovate about 1,000 homes, 120 shops and 10 schools.
40-year-old Sameera Chahabi was born in the Old City and worked with Women in Hebron for a few years, now her husband owns a shop in the Old City.
Sameera told Palestine Monitor that she believes Hebron represents the worst situation in the entire West Bank.
“They are right here, on top of us, they control us, they throw things at us. We are human beings, we need people to look at us as human beings,” Sameera said.
Her family lives in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood, inside the H2 controlled area.
“There is always tension and problems, soldiers come into the house in the middle of the night, they break things, sometimes they just go on the rooftop to watch over the street, it’s a very difficult life here for us Palestinians,” she added.
When asked why they wouldn’t move to a safer place, Sameera explained that she was born here, that her entire family was from this region and she could not abandon it.
Laila on a slow day at the market. Due to the occupation, tourism has slowed greatly.
Over the years, systematic abuse and harassment by settlers and Israeli soldiers has become an established part of life in Hebron.
According to the United Nations, the presence of Israeli settlers in Palestine and cities like Hebron is making peace in the region unachievable.
Due to this impact, tourism has slowed greatly and business is not like it used to be.
Laila and Nawal, the co-founders of Women in Hebron, have been to the US multiple times trying to promote their business and get their voice and struggles recognised internationally.
For the past few years, they have also been trying to host volunteers and international visitors in the cooperative centre.
“We can host them, teach them the embroidery art and discuss the difficulties we have been facing under occupation,” Laila said. “We need more people to hear the story of Women in Hebron, to support us. I believe there are many women in the world who face similar problems.”
“We hope that one day the situation will change and maybe we can have a bit of peace and prosperity, meanwhile, If I can keep my shop open, this is my resistance,” Laila concluded.
Women in Hebron shop is located near the entrance of the Old City market.