Anger mounts over Israel’s ‘Ramadan permits’

Palestinian merchants believe entry permits are being issued so West Bank residents will shop in Israel for the holiday.

People walk past the Dome of the Rock at
Many Palestinians have never visited Jerusalem despite its proximity to the West Bank [AFP]

Ramallah, West Bank – Palestinians have expressed anger at the timing of a decision by Israel to issue more than 200,000 entry permits during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which they say is geared towards boosting the Israeli economy.

Store-owners in the West Bank say they will be badly hit as up to one million Palestinians cross the Green Line into Israel during Ramadan and Eid el-Fitr, and believe the decision will cause significant damage to Palestinian businesses losing customers.

Campaigners have now launched efforts to steer visitors away from Israeli to Palestinian stores, while encouraging merchants in the West Bank to take the initiative and entice them through discounts to buy locally.

“Palestinians have a right to visit their brothers inside [Israel],” said Mohammed Hirbawi, who heads the Chamber of Commerce for Hebron, one of the West Bank’s largest cities.

Palestinian shop-owners feel that the permits' purpose at this time is to benefit the Israeli economy, which consequently adversely affects our own.

by - Mohammed Hirbawi, head of Hebron's Chamber of Commerce

“But the fact that these permits come at this particular time every year, when people shop on a much larger scale, raises questions over the Israeli authorities’ motive.”

Every year, Palestinian business-owners gear up for a spike in sales from Eid el-Fitr, an important religious holiday for Muslims, and Ramadan.

Israeli authorities say as many as 223,500 permits have been granted so far this year to Palestinians to cross the Green Line to pray, visit their families and shop, and many thousands more are allowed to cross without these permits if they meet certain criteria.

Last year, more than 800,000 Palestinians entered Israel – and 150,000 permits were issued – according to COGAT, the Israeli military’s civilian co-ordination body.

The Israeli authorities insist the permits are issued to “assist the Palestinian economy [and] for the welfare of the Palestinian population and [ensure] the success of the holiday [season]”.

A COGAT spokesperson said more permits were likely to be issued this year because of what he called an improved security environment.

Historical sites and beaches in Israel are coveted by Palestinians, who are forbidden from visiting all year round – but their trips inevitably include shopping as well. COGAT estimates that this year about one million Palestinians will cross into Israel during Ramadan and Eid el-Fitr – a figure that some researchers believe is conservative.

Benefit to Jerusalem

According to the Ramallah-based Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute, this flow of human traffic could benefit establishments in Jerusalem and Israel to the tune of $100m-$140m in revenue.

Last year, the economic effects of the permits were widely discussed and criticised among Palestinians. Journalist and analyst Hani Al Masri wrote: “The impact of the economic factor cannot be overlooked and it is evident in the ‘thank you’ advertisements that the Mamilla Mall [in Jerusalem] published in recognition of the civil administration’s [COGAT] issuance of visitation permits.

“Furthermore, the famous Grand Canyon Mall [in Haifa] paid off two years’ worth of storage space back rent and an additional year’s rent in advance.”

Palestinian merchants complain that the permits funnel profits away from them at a time when the Palestinian economy is already in crisis due in part to volatile wages and a rising cost of living.

“This month is known for its shopping sprees,” Hirbawi explained. “Palestinian shop-owners feel that the permits’ purpose at this time is to benefit the Israeli economy, which consequently adversely affects our own.”

Others say the policy to grant permits during the holy month reflects a larger problem – Israel’s ability to micro-mange the Palestinian economy. “It’s part of the matrix of economic control, which is 100 percent in the hands of the Israeli side,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American entrepreneur.

“They create a pressure cooker and then they release a little bit of the air by allowing people to go out, all the time benefiting economically from people who do.”

Palestinian initiatives

In response, initiatives have been launched to promote local goods and encourage people to buy from and visit Palestinian-owned establishments – whether inside Israel or the West Bank.

In East Jerusalem, Palestinian Vision, a youth organisation, has launched tours taking those with a permit around the Old City of Jerusalem.

Palestine is going through a tough economic crisis. And the influx of permits has had an additional adverse effect on local businesses.

by - Fatin Farhat, director of the Ramallah municipality's cultural department

The tour takes visitors – many of whom have never been to the Holy City despite its proximity – on historic and religious routes, identifying Palestinian shrines and sites and urging permit-holders to patronise Palestinian-owned stores and restaurants in East Jerusalem.

Co-ordinator Munther Abu Rmouz said: “There are many Palestinian-owned stores, most notably in the Old City, that can benefit economically from our brothers visiting from the West Bank.”

Palestinians from Ramallah, Jerusalem, Haifa, Nazareth, Jaffa, and Acre have launched a campaign to steer visitors away from Israeli stores and encourage them to buy from Palestinian proprietors.

Under the name “I have a permit, where should I go?”, campaigners distribute maps and lists of Palestinian-owned businesses inside Israel at the Qalandiya checkpoint.

“We are trying to minimise the benefits accrued by Israel either economically or politically,” said group member Halla Shoaibi. “We believe this is a chance for Palestinians to at least meet their compatriots from 1948 [inside Israel] and to help them economically because their own economy is marginalised.”

Local incentives

Some argue that business owners in the West Bank do not provide enough incentives – such as sales and special discounts – to encourage people to shop locally.

Accordingly, Ramallah’s municipality has launched its first-ever shopping festival, linked with high-profile cultural events and encouraging local traders to make their goods cheaper.

“We acknowledge that we have to create not just a shopping experience but an entire package where people can attend cultural events and have enough incentives to shop during their time here,” said Fatin Farhat, director of the Ramallah municipality’s cultural department.

“Palestine is going through a tough economic crisis,” Farhat said. “And the influx of permits has had an additional adverse effect on local businesses. With Ramallah’s Shopping Festival, we hope to encourage internal tourism.”

Hirbawi is convinced that part of the solution lies with the business owners themselves. “Palestinian merchants need to make the West Bank a more attractive place for shoppers by offering sales and offers such that shoppers will no longer feel the need to shop outside of the West Bank, where prices are lower,” he said.  

Bahour, the entrepreneur, says the initiatives launched this year are a step in the right direction, but do not eliminate the reality of Israeli control.

“There is a struggle on the ground between us trying to develop our economy with the limited resources available to us, and an entity that controls our economy, which can easily divert resources and people to other places,” he said.

“It’s a battle, no less than a street one.”

Source: Al Jazeera