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Carving olive wood in Palestine

The tradition of olive wood carving has been practiced by Palestinian Christians for many centuries around the Bethlehem area. As tourists now begin to arrive in the city to celebrate Christmas, carvers are working through what should be their busiest time of the year supplying carvings into the tourist industry on which their business is dependent.

Israel's colonisation of land around the Bethlehem area with the Apartheid Wall, settlement infrastructure, military zones and other tools has severely affected the olive wood carving industry. The vast amounts of land that has been usurped and the tens of thousands of olive trees that have been destroyed by the Occupation in the Bethlehem area have played their role in necessitating the sourcing of wood from outside the area. This has also led to a major increase in the wholesale price of olive wood which has had a direct affect on retail prices and subsequently sales.

Whilst carvers say that many tourists complain about high prices, the artisans argue that their potential profits have decreased due to the rising wood prices. These problems are exacerbated by new workshops opening since the start of the Second Intifada as access to Jerusalem's employment market has become impossible for so many Palestinians. Several carvers who have moved in to the industry over the last 10-15 years have done so because of lack of other work opportunities following the enforced closures on Jerusalem.

The rich history of carving olive wood souvenirs continues in Palestine yet its future remains uncertain as the industry struggles under the weight of economic pressure brought on by the Occupation.

Images by MEMO Photographer Rich Wiles.

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