Traditional industries in the West Bank

In the West Bank, several traditional Palestinian industries are still utilising historical techniques fine-tuned through generations – but once flourishing industries, such as shoemaking in Hebron or olive oil soap production in Nablus, are barely surviving, with a fraction of their former workforces.

Photographer Rich Wiles has been documenting these industries, some of which may not survive much longer in the current political and economic climate.

Judah Herbawi in his factoryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Judah Herbawi manages the only factory in the Palestinian Territories still producing the keffiyeh – the traditional chequered Arab headscarf worn by the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat that has become a symbol of the Palestinians. About 90% of the keffiyehs on sale in the territories’ markets today are mass-produced in China.

Glass blowingImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Glass-blowing in the Palestinian Territories reportedly traces its origins back to the Roman era and has always been centred around the city of Hebron. The industry later became dependent on tourism, and only one original factory survived closures during the first Initifada, or Palestinian uprising, which began in 1987. The Natsheh Glass and Ceramics Factory began production more than 150 years ago.

Pile of olive woodImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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The olive-wood carving industry in the Bethlehem area was originally sustained by local trees – but, today, most carvers are sourcing wood from the northern West Bank.

Wood carvingImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Historians believe olive wood was first carved in Bethlehem by monks in the Fourth Century, after the construction of the Church of the Nativity, but it was not until the 16th and 17th Centuries that the work was industrialised. Many artisans today continue to carve by hand, and the business remains largely in the hands of Palestinian Christian families.

Olive oil soapImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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The city of Nablus, along with the Lebanese city of Tripoli, has been renowned for the production of olive-oil soap for many centuries. Made from local olive oil, water and a sodium compound, Nablus soap is reported to have first been produced in the 10th Century, with the work becoming industrialised in the 14th Century.

Soap factoryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Several olive-oil soap factories were destroyed by an earthquake that hit Nablus in 1927. More recently, during the second Intifada, which began in 2001, Israeli military attacks on Nablus caused further destruction to the historical buildings. And, today, only three factories remain in production.

Worker in a tanneryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Historically, Palestinian tanneries got hides from neighbouring Arab states. More recently, supplies suffered from Israel’s economic embargo against Gaza’s Islamist rulers, which together with a ban on chemicals for security reasons has brought Zarai tanneries in Hebron to the brink of closure, its managers say.

Ceramics industryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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Like glass-blowing, the ceramics industry is centred in Hebron. The city’s main ceramics-producing families have long histories in the industry – but with tourism no longer a major business in the city and a subsequent lack of business, the families’ new generations are now looking outside of the trade for work opportunities.

Shoe factoryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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From the 1970s until the early 1990s approximately one third of Hebron’s population was working in the shoe industry. Since that time, the unregulated importation of mass-produced cheap Chinese shoes has flooded and taken over the local market.

Shoe factoryImage copyright
Rich Wiles

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From employing about 35,000 people during its height, the shoemaking industry today employs about a tenth of that figure, while the city’s population has nearly doubled during the same period.

All photographs courtesy Rich Wiles.


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