Handicrafts in Palestine

   Palestinian cultural heritage is inherently connected to the natural environment. For centuries, generations of Palestinians have utilised raw materials from their surroundings to produce a distinct identity for many towns and villages. Such craftsmanship has turned many Palestinian regions into hubs for handicraft production and other economic activities. Meanwhile, Palestinian towns containing religious destinations have marketed and supported an industry for handicrafts (e.g. Bethlehem olive wood carvings, Armenian pottery, Hebron glass, etc…). 

   Our cultural heritage practices, from handicrafts to arts, have made use of raw materials coming out as ‘waste’ of other practices and productions. Olive tree clippings, wheat straw, sheep wool, and leather are but a few examples. Traditionally, these products were never perceived as waste. This edition seeks to further highlight the concept of reuse and upcycling as not merely a justification to continue consuming 'guilt free' but to appreciate how traditional handicrafts heavily utilised the waste and leftovers from agricultural and other activities to produce practical and aesthetic goods. Moreover, new producers and community initiatives are challenging our current unsustainable consumption patterns by promoting community work and products which have an environmental and ethical ethos. 

   Traditional Palestinian handicrafts have had their fair share of revivals and extinctions, depending on trade conditions. The Palestinian Association of Cultural Exchange (PACE) has produced a database of information on the history and condition of each handicraft. The ones that have been revived are pottery, olive wood carvings, embroidery, olive soap, and glass blowing. The reason behind their re-emergence is their ability to enter the globalized market as a touristic craft. The endangered ones are straw and olive branch basketry, wool weaving, and traditional sheepskin tanning. These handicrafts have lost their significance in daily use for the average Palestinian with the introduction of many new varieties and goods predominantly imported from China or Turkey, which quickly replaced and almost stopped the production of these local products. 

   The Palestinian handicraft industry is under a constant threat from different actors. While the Israeli occupation plays the most active role in diminishing the industry, the flooding of the Palestinian market with replica items at lower prices and higher availability has steered away many artisans from producing traditional handicrafts. The interest and investment in developing local handicrafts by Palestinian governmental institutions has been minimal, with many NGOs taking the lead role by empowering local producers through different workshops and trainings. Similarly, the competition amongst souvenir shops to sell at lowest prices has caused many local artisans financial loses and in the worst cases has caused them to stop their trade altogether. 

   Small-scale producers and family-run businesses have an added value of being unique, catering to a different type of customer, and being attentive to detail, quality, and end product finishing. The influence of cheap imports has impacted Palestine since the times of Ottoman rule. However, globalization and free markets have changed people’s perspectives on products and changed their preferences from high quality and durability to disposable and cheap. This has affected the handicraft industry as well, which underwent a period of diminishing quality and the introduction of synthetics and plastics in traditional handicraft production (like weaving baskets with plastic threads). That being said, there is an encouraging new trend, where people who are buying traditional products are attentive to their authenticity and traditional natural elements. 

   Another encouraging trend is the increased focus of the handicrafts producers on strengthening the intergenerational linkages when it comes to handicraft products. Some of the producers were originally motivated to preserve a certain craft when they found out that the last producer has stopped working or sadly passed away and felt a responsibility to pass it to younger generations. Others were finding it unsettling to see a large divide between the older and younger generations when it comes to sharing anecdotes and traditions of handicraft works. Such concerns have led many community leaders, as you shall read in this guide, to plant a seed of change and watch as their initiatives organically grow and connect generations, different groups and interests. Amongst the rubble lies hope, as Gaza has always taught us. In the aftermath of the 2014 assault on Gaza , innovators found a way to turn the rubble, and the debris of what used to be their homes, and most precious belongings into living things again. For instance, rubble in Al-Nuseirat Camp was recycled and turned into new construction blocks, which became an alternative as Israel’s blockage prevents the entry of essential construction materials to Gaza. Furthermore, solar energy projects using available local materials saw a rise, created by engineers from different universities. Even electric cars were produced back in 2008 with the aim of becoming less dependent on the fuel that is minimally allowed into Gaza due to the blockade that Israel continues to impose. 

   We are happy to find a ray of hope in the three projects we managed to connect with, entitled Atfaluna, Sulafa and Al Sawwaf, that have shown determination and commitment to join us in this guide. 

   From our experience in preparing this guide, we can confidently claim that the handicrafts sector in Palestine is undergoing a creative and unprecedented innovation boom. Designers, artists, engineers and community organisers are entering the field and bringing in distinctive creations to a sector, that has for a long time been traditional, predictable, and to a certain extent outdated. This edition of the guide includes many new and promising producers who creatively bring about a twist to local traditions and a much-needed fresh outlook on local crafts. From glass blowing to ceramics, olive wood to embroidery, Palestinian handicrafts today are evolving from their traditional form, thanks to creative energies being injected to it by newcomers from different fields. Again, we have come across so many new producers and products but as this guide could not include all of them, we focused on the better-established ones as well as new and young producers.