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Help for handicrafts in the Holy Land

Each Christmas, Christian pilgrims make their way to Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, believed to mark the spot where Jesus Christ was born. Due to its location in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, travel has been rendered more difficult, especially since 2001, and souvenir shops in the Old City are hurting, according to recent news reports.

“Tourism has picked up lately,” Shibly Kando, owner of Kando Store in the West Bank, told the Detroit Free Press. “We can say that it’s a little better than before, but still if we compare with how it was before 2001, it’s still not 10 percent of that yet.”

Kando’s store feature antiques, jewelry and gifts made in the West Bank, such as nativity scenes carved out of olive wood — one of the most popular purchases.

Nearly 1.5 million people visited Bethlehem in 2008, and the number could reach two million this year, according to the Palestinian Tourism Ministry. However, the majority of visitors come on a half-day tour from Jerusalem, leaving little time for shopping in Bethlehem and leaving West Bank vendors out of the economic equation. As reported by Global Post, Palestinian Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes says “seventy percent of all tourists to Bethlehem return to hotels in Israel, while Palestinians receive a mere five percent of total revenues from those visiting both Israel and the West Bank.”

fair-trade products from Bethlehem

In the village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem, Raja Bannoura and his family hand carve nativities from pruned olive tree branches. This fair-traded product retails for $24 at http://www.tenthousandvillages.com.

There are organizations trying to change things around. The Fair Trade Development Center at Bethlehem University has called for the establishment of “fair trade in tourism” movement to promote a different picture of Palestine and its people as an attractive and friendly tourism destination and to promote Palestinian goods produced under fair-trade principles. And Catholic Relief Services, the official humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic Community, has supported artisans and farmers in the Holy Land. Last year, it awarded $18,000 to the Holy Land Handicraft Cooperative Society for market development efforts.

The message is clear: Bethlehem is worth the effort to visit, but if you can’t there, then Bethlehem will come to you via fair-traded products.

According to the non-profit organization SERRV International, “fair trade is growing in Palestine, and farmers and carvers understand its benefits.”

“It’s very clear with fair trade that we get a fair wage,” wood carver Naji Abu Farha told SERRV. “We get work … and we always receive an advance and prompt payment…. We get the price we ask for. We get good orders.”

Until stability returns to the region, fair trade may be the best way for handicraft suppliers and vendors in the West Bank to survive.

So, after the holidays, when you’re stocking up on Christmas décor that’s 50 or 60 percent off at Walmart, consider making a special purchase that will have an impact in Bethlehem instead. It gets to the heart of the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place.

Better yet, book your trip to the Holy Land and send us a souvenir (purchased in Bethlehem’s Old City) from your visit.

In the meantime, happy holidays from the Souvenir Museum.

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Filed under Bethlehem, Home Furnishings, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Replica, Uncategorized