The Safest Place in the Territories

The Hebron municipal clerk who made an appointment for me with new mayor Chaled Usaily said there would be no problem coming to the city today. "Just get into the car and drive. No one will say a thing to you," he said.

He meant that no one at an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint would detain me. For two months, there have been no checkpoints between Jerusalem and the Arab part of Hebron. One drives to the adjoining Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, turns right into the Sheikh Yunis neighborhood in Halhoul, and finally takes what was once the main road to the big city.

Most Israelis imagine Hebron to be the site of harsh conflicts between Jewish settlers and Arab residents. But the truth is that with the exception of the point of contention at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, this is the quietest and safest city in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Gaza is the scene of daily shootings and infighting between a variety of groups, and one might say that personal safety in Ramallah and Nablus is also precarious, Hebron is tranquil.

There are no militias, no armed gangs and no hooligans. There is a traditional tribal social structure, no refugee camps inside the city and the town's large and powerful families do not permit lawlessness.

An astute businessman

Hebron, now home to 230,000 residents, has changed little in recent years. A few new traffic lights were installed between what was once called the Glass Intersection, in honor of the many nearby glass-blowing workshops that have long since disappeared, and the Hebron Municipality on the main street.

One of the new lights adjoins the Park Hotel that hosted Rabbi Moshe Levinger and the first settlers on Passover, 39 years ago. The municipality has been renovated, to some extent, and the mayor's offices expanded.

Mayor Chaled Usaily was appointed by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas three weeks ago, after the previous mayor, Mustafa Natshe, who served as mayor since 1980 (except for a brief period in which he served as an officer in the Israeli administration), fell ill.

Usaily is one of the most prominent Palestinian businessmen in the territories. His father, Zuhair Usaily, led the domestic products and kitchen imports industry in the West Bank and Gaza for many years.

He also commanded a great deal of that market in Jordan and Levinsky Street in Tel Aviv. His son, Chaled, studied business administration at Ain Shams University in Cairo before returning to Hebron to join the family's widespread business.

Palestinian jokes about Hebron residents depict them as penny-pinching simpletons. One such joke features a man who hammered a nail into the wooden door of his home. To his consternation, the nail grew crooked. When he checked the other side of the door to see what went wrong, he discovered a Hebron native with his head against the door.

But there are also jokes that portray Hebron natives as shrewd connivers with a well-developed penchant for commerce. They say that if you take 10 Palestinian merchants, tie them together, and squeeze them until all their wisdom seeps together, you'll end up with one Hebronite - with a limp.

Usaily doubled and even tripled the family business. He speaks fluent Hebrew. He owns construction companies and a share of PalTel, the largest telecommunications company in the PA. He spearheaded and built the first and (for now) only Palestinian shopping mall in Ramallah, and established investment, commerce and service companies with others.

On September 27, 2000, Usaily sailed with Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian businessmen to dedicate the first Palestinian natural gas well on the Gaza shore.

Arafat lit a torch from the flowing gas and blessed God for granting gas to the Palestinian people.

Everyone spoke about investments and development then. Usaily remembers every moment of that day because, the next day, Ariel Sharon climbed the Temple Mount - and the rest is history.

Now that he has passed some of his business interests on to his sons, he is attempting to address the needs of his city.

Usaily is no stranger to the municipality. He has served on the local council since 1976.

He ran for a seat in the Palestinian parliament on current Finance Minister Salem Fayyad's list. The list won two seats, the second seat was filled by Hanan Ashrawi, and Usaily was excluded.

The unemployed masses

Three delegations visited the office during the brief hour of my own visit. The first delegation included 23 owners of homes near the southern border of the city, who had received demolition orders from Israel's Civil Administration.

As they left the office, 20 owners of the Hebron National Bus Company waited at the door. They have barely worked since the onset of the intifada and erection of checkpoints.

The buses have been paralyzed and 90 families of bus owners, drivers and other workers have joined the masses of unemployed residents of Hebron, which include half of the city's potential workforce, according to estimates.

While bus company owners continued to speak, a large group of store and office owners, who own properties on central streets near Bab al-Zawia (dubbed "Police Plaza" by the Civil Administration) filed in. It appears that many Hebron residents who had shops and offices in the Old City succumbed to pressure from Jewish settlers to leave and, for lack of a better alternative, opened produce and clothing stalls on the sidewalks that surround Bab al-Zawia.

"I receive pregnant women who are simply embarrassed to pass through the filth, to shove and be shoved, in order to see me," he explains to the new mayor.

Usaily asks members of this group to be brief. He has a meeting in Ramallah with the speaker of the Italian Parliament, Fousto Bertinotti, and he is already late.

"You are all staying in the city and the speaker of the Italian Parliament is leaving tonight," he says, begging them to let him go. One of them answers, "But you are always busy."

On his way out, Usaily tells me that this is what typically happens in his office, from morning to night.

Dozens of similar delegations arrive every day. He serves as more of an ombudsman than a mayor. Usaily says that recently it seems as though people with complaints from 20 years ago have suddenly remembered to come.

Government offices, public institutions, and the municipality are finding it difficult to pay their employees salaries.

An efficient market

They constantly engage in dubious payment schemes. Financial security concerns Arab residents of Hebron more than personal security.

However, the municipality appears to provide services in a reasonable fashion.

Only a few days ago, the municipality opened a new wholesale produce market, and large pictures of Arafat and Abbas that decorated the market during its opening ceremony still hang at the entrance.

They brought me to the market, which is a source of pride among Hebron residents. It is clean and organized. Trade between merchants is documented on computers and municipality officials say there is no more modern and efficient market in the entire PA. Nor is there a market like it in Jordan or even in Tel Aviv.