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Even Palestinians beloved keffiyeh feels the heat of Chinese imports
China in the Holy L 5388569
Palestinian weaver Yasser Herbawi, 76, inspects a loom in his workshop that produces checkered head scarves, or keffiyehs, in the West Bank town of Hebron, Tuesday, March 11, 2008. Herbawi once supplied much of the West Bank and Gaza with the scarves, or keffiyehs, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. However, most of the keffiyehs are now produced in China, and 11 of 15 looms in Herbawi's workshop stand idle. - photo by Associated Press
    HEBRON, West Bank — Yasser Herbawi once supplied much of the West Bank and Gaza with black-and-white checkered scarves, the proud emblem of Palestinian identity made famous by the late Yasser Arafat.
    But most of his looms now stand idle, his product edged out by cheap imports from the world’s newest keffiyeh capital: China.
    After a decade of being flooded with Chinese goods, from scarves to toys and bags, the West Bank’s largest city is struggling to compete — yet another obstacle to economic independence for Palestinians as they strive for a state of their own.
    Two-thirds of Hebron’s textile workshops have closed and 6,000 shoe factory workers have lost their jobs in the last eight years, pushing unemployment to 30.5 percent, the highest in the West Bank, according to Hebron’s chamber of commerce.
    Cheap imports have hit manufacturing towns across the world, but the economic decline of this city of 230,000 is particularly ironic. Hebron long adhered to what is now China’s recipe for success: work hard and sell cheap. And Chinese goods are imported to the West Bank by traders from Hebron, the city suffering most.
    It’s hard to find an upside to globalization here.
    Old industries are being squeezed out, while Israeli restrictions on movement and land development limit the scope for new ventures. Israel’s measures to stop suicide bombers make it much harder to get goods into Israel, and West Bank manufacturers can no longer sell to Gaza, sealed off after the violent Hamas takeover there last year.
    U.S.-led efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians will be futile without a Palestinian economic recovery, but Hebron Mayor Khaled Osaily said he doesn’t see any quick fixes.
    ‘‘We have a disaster here,’’ he said.
    The door to China opened for Palestinians in the mid-1990s, after Israel and China forged diplomatic ties. The response among Palestinian business people was especially enthusiastic in Hebron.
    Flights from the Middle East to China were soon packed with Hebronites, especially to big trade fairs. China operated a visa office in Hebron for several years, and even street vendors began pooling their cash to send representatives there to shop.
    Eventually, more than 300 Hebronites had export offices in China, the mayor said.
    ‘‘We have a love of adventure,’’ Maher Haimouni of Hebron’s chamber of commerce said of his fellow merchants. No less than 90 percent of Hebron’s traders had been to China, he said.
    By 2005, Palestinians imported $111 million worth of goods from China annually, compared to $1.8 billion from Israel and $120 million from Turkey, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. The value of Chinese imports was up 20 percent from the previous year, compared to 3 percent higher from Turkey and a 7 percent hike from Israel.
    Local industry quickly felt the pain.
    Herbawi, unable to compete, closed his keffiyeh workshop in 2000 after four decades in operation, switching off 15 looms that used to make about 350 scarves a day. With the support of a dozen loyal customers, he said he reopened last year and rehired one worker who now arrives every day to run four looms for a few hours.
    Herbawi wants import restrictions, but these seem unlikely: His son, Izzat, noted that even Arafat’s Fatah movement, once a large customer, now buys some keffiyehs from China.
    ‘‘Keffiyehs should be made by Palestinian hands,’’ said Herbawi, 76, who wore one as he deftly rolled his own cigarettes.
    The government is powerless to enforce standards, and a lot of the imports are of poor quality, the mayor said, adding that the trash the city collects has doubled in recent years, largely thanks to quickly discarded Chinese goods.
    Some of Hebron’s traders are defensive, stung by complaints that their Chinese imports are destroying the local economy.
    Hazem Natche, 38, took time out from unloading cartons of handbags just arrived from China to say he had no choice — his own handbag factory closed because of Chinese competition.
    Only Mohammed Shiyoukhi, a member of a large clan that trades with China, was unapologetic. His store, selling toys, hats, footballs and, of course, keffiyehs, is named ‘‘Hong Kong.’’
    Customer Hanan Sharabati, 19, said she buys West Bank shoes because they’re better than the imports — a sentiment that Farhat Siyaj hopes will get him through the bad times.
    He and his six brothers own one of Hebron’s largest shoe factories, and have coped by cutting back work hours and landing contracts with Israeli companies and even the Israeli military, he said.
    Last week, his workers stitched sandals and walking shoes for female soldiers. In another section, they assembled gold sandals for girls — albeit with parts imported from China — for an Israeli company.
    But if Hebron wants to survive the twin pressures of Israeli restrictions and Chinese imports, it must shift to services and information technology, said Osaily, the mayor.
    While change may be tough for this frugal, traditional city, he said, ‘‘we cannot continue as usual.’’
    Additional reporting by AP reporter Nasser Shiyoukhi.

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