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The Emergence of Trade in the City of Hebron

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 11.04.2008:

and Its Development over the Past One Hundred Years

By Mohammad Nafez Al Hirbawi

Hebron is considered one of the historical Palestinian cities that have a distinct geographic and demographic character. It is one of the most important cities built by Canaanite Arabs who gave it the name, “The City of Four.” It became known by its current name when the Prophet Ibrahim al-Khalil came from Iraq and bought from the Canaanite king the cave which today contains his human ashes and the ashes of his sons and their wives, peace be upon them. The city has been called Khalil al-Rahman (Hebron) ever since.

Hebron has a long tradition in the fields of trade and industry and has become renowned for its factories of glass, pottery, leather tanning, and other traditional industries. Traders from Hebron are active in interacting with neighbouring states, such as Egypt and Syria, whereas at the beginning of the twentieth century many of the city’s inhabitants travelled to Egypt to work as mobile traders and became permanent residents. They used to trade in Palestinian-made commodities, such as Nablus soap, glass, pottery, and leather products, as well as grape products, thyme, and other local goods. All one needs to do is view the streets of the famous market in Cairo, known as Khan Al-Khalili, which have a historic reputation for the most traditional ancient crafts. There are several families from Hebron that moved to Cairo long ago and still live there.

The same is true for Syria as well, but on a smaller scale. There was a group of Hebron traders based in Damascus who used to import Syrian textiles. They would also send experts in the operation of textile mills to Hebron from Syria, in particular those skilled in what is known as “used ink” for the manufacturing of village clothing (traditional peasant dress) and embroidery. Others were interested in transferring the technology of the footwear industry. Many Hebronites are highly skilled in this industry and their expertise has contributed to the city’s reputation for excellence in footwear. Hebron is home to 12 leather tanneries and not less than 500 mills and footwear factories in various specialties.

Thus was the work of the first generation of city traders until the end of the fifties.

At the beginning of the sixties the second generation of youth emerged and obtained their knowledge from the experience of the previous generation. They had the education and knowledge to make human capital the most important economic resource of the city. Many travelled to the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to work in various areas, particularly in the education sector. The experience gained by these young people as they lived and worked in cities with highly developed commercial and industrial sectors enabled them to understand the dynamics of industry and allowed them to improve on and develop the knowledge that they had acquired from their parents and grandparents. Thus they became real pioneers in the fields of trade, industry, and other areas. As a result, the Governorate of Hebron became the capital of trade and industry in Palestine. This reality provoked the late president Yasser Arafat (Abu Ammar), God’s mercy be upon him, to coin the phrase “the Castle of the Palestinian Economy” to describe Hebron. Anyone who travels either east or west will find dozens or even hundreds of people from the Hebron Governorate who are deployed in various oriental and western world exhibitions in search of everything new. Dozens of offices of Hebron traders have opened their doors in industrial China for the purpose of developing their industry and trade options.

A review of the trading relationships between China and Hebron reveals that most commodity imports from China have been managed by traders from the Governorate of Hebron. Perhaps what contributed most to this prospering trade is the weak purchasing power of Palestinian citizens due to the occupation and its restrictions on the population in terms of movement of goods and people. This situation was exacerbated by the lack of income sources, particularly in the labour sector, which led to the injection of cash payments of at least one million dollars per day. This labour force is now without work and has joined the unemployment lines throughout the country.

The other face of trade with China is its direct negative impact on many local industries, especially the manufacturing of footwear, clothing, and other products.

In the Governorate of Hebron there are more than a hundred craftspeople in several fields, including stone quarries and extensions, glass, pottery, textile, footwear, and the manufacturing of paper, cartons, industrial and regular scales, furniture, food industries, and the long and varied branches of these industries.

Each of the industries in the city of Hebron has a long history, and each has a separate and stand-alone identity. For example, the glass industry was monopolised by one family in the city. They used to build furnaces and fuse glass in all forms and thus became one of the significant contributors to the tourism industry. What applies to the glass industry applies to the leather industry as well, in that it is the exclusive domain of one family, where children learn the trade secrets from their parents. In the past, traditional and local chemical substances such as salts and sumac leaves and other natural resources were used in the tanning process. Today, however, the industry uses the latest sophisticated industrial machinery and high-quality chemical substances.

Rug and carpet factories are found throughout the villages of the Hebron Governorate, as well as stone quarries for the purposes of construction and decoration. Hebron stone has been exported to many countries in the world, especially America.

The gypsum industry with its various forms and colours is also well-known and common in the governorate. Indeed, it is hard to find a house devoid of the beautiful gypsum decor.

The manufacturing of industrial and regular scales has experienced technological development that is integral to this industry, such as the use of digital electronic boards and other recent industry technology. The establishment of the electrode factory in the city of Hebron has been an effective and constructive contribution in the area of industrial progress in the region.

The same applies to the textile industry. This industry began with manual weaving machines but has developed to include the latest machines for textile and fabric printing in various shapes and colours.

The pottery and porcelain industry has developed in a similar manner – from working with manual wheels to using moulds and thermal furnaces, and mixing pottery with glass to produce the most beautiful pieces of art. This industry forms a popular attraction for the tourism industry.

Food industries also progressed, especially with the production of halawa, hallom, creams, chips, peaches, tomatoes, and grape products, such as molasses, dried grapes (malban), and various kinds of jams extracted from grapes. Knowing that one of the dairy factories has the capacity to produce 100 tons of fresh dairy products and other foodstuffs per day gives a clear picture of the level of growth and development that has been achieved by the industry.

In addition to other industries that have developed, the olive oil industry and its derivatives, such as soap and other detergents, are also prevalent.

The most impressive Palestinian economic edifice constructed in the city is the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Its seven stories and 4,000 square meters promise to be a beacon for several decades and generations to come. It also hosts a businessmen’s forum, the members of which provide much encouragement for the development of industry and commerce within the governorate.

The growth of knowledge and applied sciences is largely due to the existence of scientific institutes and centres such as the Palestine Polytechnic University, Hebron University, and other universities outside the Hebron area such as Bethlehem University, Birzeit University, and Al-Najah University, and other various professional colleges. The Palestine Polytechnic University and its graduates, who are scientifically and practically qualified in various engineering and management areas, provide the Hebron Governorate, in particular, and Palestine, in general, with significant human resources to support continued economic development. In addition, the industrial school, the vocational training centre, UNRWA centres, and other centres that provide youth with knowledge and experience add to the ambitions of these young people and encourage them to contribute effectively to a promising industrial and commercial renaissance.

The story of development in Hebron is similar to that of other Palestinian cities because they form a single entity, though each Palestinian city has its own special characteristics that distinguish it from other cities. This article is one example of the fact that the Palestinian people are capable of creating miracles. We are proud to know that, although we suffer under occupation, we are able to realise a wide range of accomplishments that will help to lay the foundation of a Palestinian state.

Mohammad Nafez Al Hirbawi, a businessman from Hebron, is currently chairman of the board of directors of Paltrade – Palestine Trade Center, the Paper Industries Company, Al-Ahlia Boxes Industries, and Hirbawi Investment & Int’l Trade Company – Hitco.

This Week in Palestine

April 2008

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