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Hebron’s ancient handicrafts’ struggle for survival

For many centuries, glassware and ceramics have been produced in the West Bank’s industrial heartland of Hebron. It is thought that it was the Phoenicians who first developed glass-blowing in the Middle East, but that today’s industry in Palestine probably originates from the Roman period.

Prior to the First Intifada, which began in 1987, several workshops were active in Hebron but only one of them survived the sustained closures that Israel enforced during the famous uprising. Although one new workshop opened in the city during the 1990’s the industry has never recovered.

Hamdi Tawfiq Natsheh manages Hebron’s family-run ‘Natsheh Glass and Ceramics Factory’, a role that was passed down via his father and his grandfather – who began working with glass in the city some 150 years ago.

“I began watching my grandfather and father when I was only 7 years old and learning from them. This is hard work and it take years to perfect.”

The family’s current workshop was opened in 1976 and Natsheh says business was good at first but now times are hard:

Is this the Third Intifada?

Rising tensions in the Occupied Territories have led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of clashes.
Are we witnessing the Third Intifada?

“This business needs peace, political peace. We relied on tourism for our sales but hardly anyone comes to Hebron now. With the current situation in Jerusalem we are seeing only one or two visitors a week.”

The family have worked hard to build an international market for their products and it is these exports, according to Natsheh, that are now sustaining the business. Around 75% of all the workshop’s products are currently being produced for export.

Few cities within the 1967 occupied lands have suffered more than Hebron. It remains the only city in the West Bank in which Israeli settlers occupy parts of the centre of the Palestinian city. Although the Natsheh workshop is situated at the northern entrance of the city, well away from the Old City area which is occupied by settlers and a permanent Israeli military presence, most tourists still avoid the city all together.

Despite the difficulties, it is clear that Hamdi Natsheh is justifiably proud of his family business and its products, yet also concerned about what the future may hold:

“We don’t want to lose these crafts – they represent Palestinian history, but today we cannot encourage young people to learn these skills because they see no money and no future in the business.

Images by MEMO photographer, Rich Wiles.

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