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West Bank: ICRC rehabilitates Beit Ummar vegetable market

20-05-2006 Feature

The Palestinian village of Beit Ummar near the West Bank town of Hebron is proud of its newly rehabilitated vegetable market. After almost 6 years of closure, the "souk al khodar al markazi", the central vegetable market, will reopen this spring and become a lively place of exchange for farmers and their customers.

When the market first opened in 1999 farmers and merchants were expecting it to boost incomes and significantly improve the life of the whole community. Beit Ummar was famous for its vegetable and fruit, mainly grapes but also apples, pears, peaches and apricots grown on nearby farmlands. Business was growing and customers came from as far as Gaza. Even Israeli customers could access the market located less than a hundred metres from the bypass linking the Israeli settlements of Karme Tzur and Gush Etzion.

But hopes soon faded away. When the second Intifada broke out in September 2000, the market was closed down by order of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Mounds of earth blocked access to the area. The market was deserted; the unsold fruit and vegetable rotted. Intensive military activity at the entrance of Beit Ummar kept civilians away.

The residents of Beit Ummar now had to sell their produce in Hebron or in surrounding villages that required long and risky trips across military checkpoints and roadblocks. A few fortunate ones managed to open small shops in the centre of Beit Ummar.

The situation became even worse when construction work started on the West Bank Barrier just a few kilometres away. As a result, an estimated 50% of the farmlands of Beit Ummar were cut off by the Barrier and no longer accessible. For a period of three years, the village of 14,000 inhabitants was completely sealed-off due to closures imposed by the IDF, a catastrophe when more than half the population relies on agriculture as its main source of income.

" Many people had to take up a second job. Production was sinking, whereas the populatio n was growing " , said Mr. Alqam, the mayor of Beit Ummar. " Farmers had no other choice but to abandon their lands and workers lost their jobs in Israel " , added Karim, a local farmer who also teaches.

Now, the ICRC's " cash for work " project to rehabilitate the market has brought renewed hope to the inhabitants of Beit Ummar. Most importantly, it will allow them to improve their livelihoods and alleviate the hardships of unemployment.

" And the municipality will also benefit from tax income " , says the mayor.

At the end of 2005, after the local Palestinian authorities had been refused several times, the ICRC received permission from the Israeli authorities to rehabilitate the market. Around one hundred workers selected from among the most vulnerable inhabitants of Beit Ummar received salaries from the ICRC in exchange for taking part in the project.

" I have been unemployed for the last 5 years and I have 6 children... I used to work in Israel before the Intifada but lost my job because of the closures. With this job, the ICRC is offering me an opportunity to improve a little bit the life of my family, and at the same time, I feel proud to do something for the community. We are also very eager to have a new market " , said Muhammad, while shovelling sand in front of the building.

The project will last for a total period of 35 days and employs around 20 workers a day. The rehabilitation work at the twelve shops is almost complete. Munzer, an ICRC employee from the nearby Hebron office explained that the organization tried to ensure work for as many people as possible.

There are currently more than fifty " cash for work " projects implemented by the ICRC throughout the Palestinian territories. While such projects are designed to sustain the livelihoods of Palestinian civilians severely a ffected by restrictions of movement, the primary responsibility to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population of the occupied territories (such as access to food, health care, work, education) lies with the authorities of the occupying power, Israel.