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Horse And Carriage Rides Hebron-Style

Horse and carriage in Hebron city centre



Hebron - an ancient city about 20 miles (30km south of Jerusalem) - is not an obvious tourist trap.

Yes, it houses the tomb of the patriarchs and matriarchs; the place where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives are reputedly buried.

But Hebron is also coloured - saturated - by the surreal juxtaposition of several hundred Jewish settlers, guarded by several thousand Israeli soldiers, in the centre of the West Bank's largest city, home to 160,000 Palestinians.

The settlers have the reputation for being some of the most hard-boiled in the occupied territories. The centre of the city has been turned into a myriad of bewildering closures, checkpoints, and spitting confrontations.

Against this backdrop, the British government has been funding an attempt to encourage tourism.

The Foreign Office has given the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee $40,000 towards horse-and-carriage rides through the Old City.

Said Ali Ahmed took me on the back of his cramped, frou-frou carriage, swaying along the narrow lanes.


Said Ali Ahmed

Said Ali Ahmed is optimistic that the carriages will draw people to the city

Said has been plying this short route since April. Before, he had worked on building sites.

"Business is not great," he told me, as we yelled at each other above the noise of the market.

"The passengers - some of them are visitors, but a lot are from Hebron. But, you know, I think it will encourage people to see the vanished Old City."

The Old City has been hit hard by the occupation. Imad Hamdan, who helps run the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, says that back in the 1950s, 10,000 Palestinians lived in the Old City.

In 1996, when the HRC began its work, that had slipped to 400. More than three-quarters of shops in the area had shut.

Abed is running one of the horse-and-carriage rides just around the corner from the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. His face is creased and beaten from standing out in the sun.

Standing is what he has done most of the day, for the past six weeks.

"We got the permits from the Israelis to bring in the horse and the carriage into the Hebron area," he told me. "But we need an additional permit to move around. And I'm still waiting for the Israeli captain to give me it."

Abed used to run a shop. That died. Now, he says it is the same here.

He has had one customer in the last six weeks. For that ride, he earned 20 shekels ($5.60). He cannot tout for passengers until he receives permission from the army.


Abed says he has had one customer for his carriage rides in six weeks

"Business is dead," he said, in the midday heat. "We are like the soil."

Jewish tourists, in their tens of thousands, visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

The Palestinian side attracts fewer visitors. On the day I went, I did meet one group: Jordi, a young man from Barcelona, who along with five friends and a tour guide, was sucking down a freshly squeezed fruit juice from a market stall.

"It's not the first stop when you think of tourism," Jordi said. "You can feel the tension. There are a lot of checkpoints. But so far, we've been one hour here, people are very friendly."

Horse-and-carriage rides may stir some interest in tourism in Hebron. The West Bank is full of worthy, internationally-funded gestures.

But in reality, the only way that the mess that is Hebron can be cleaned up, is for there to be a political upheaval. And that is something that, at the moment, foreign money simply cannot buy.

Well, after visiting Al Khalleil (Hebron) several times, I feel that its people have to live under extraordinary pressures. Some of their own making and some of the 'occupation', it is up to the outside world to help and visiting there is an informative experience. However Sarah should also look at the other 'killing' that happened there in the 1990s, to see how such actions cannot be the future.
Chris Blackcurrent, UK

It is a pity Tim Franks made no mention that Jews lived in Hebron for centuries until the Pogrom of 1929 when the Palestinians of Hebron massacred their Jewish neighbours. Also, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is one of the better founded traditions of holy places because Jews continually lived in Hebron long before either Christianity or Islam. It was emptied of its Jews by violence only in this century.
Sara Cohen, Jerusalem, Israel

BBC NEWS | World | Middle East | Jerusalem Diary: Monday 1 September