Israel has been clamping down on Palestinian quarrying and mining in a concerted effort, say residents and human rights groups, to harm the Palestinian economy.
In recent weeks, the Israeli army has caused quarry production, which constitutes Palestinians’ number one export, to all but come to a halt in one of its major centers.
Nearly all the quarries in Beit Fajjar, a Palestinian village south of Bethlehem that borders several Israeli settlements, have been shut down.
At dawn on 21 March, 23-year-old quarry worker Khalil Abu Hussein climbed into a drilling rig to begin work.
He immediately shut down the machine. The soldiers ordered him to restart it, but he refused. Abu Hussein said he knew they would want to confiscate the excavator.
This was the second time in one week that Israeli soldiers had interrupted quarry production in Beit Fajjar, seizing equipment and exacting high fines before returning the machinery.
“They started kicking me and hitting me with the butts of their rifles. I lay with my face down and the soldiers hit me in my back and hips.”
The rest of the workers in the area fled the quarry. The soldiers continued to hit Abu Hussein as they took him to another rig so he could turn it on.
Eventually an officer with the Civil Administration – the name Israel gives the body that administers its military occupation of the West Bank – arrived.
He handcuffed Abu Hussein and drove him around to different quarries for about an hour, asking him to turn on different machines. Every time Abu Hussein told them he couldn’t turn on a machine the soldiers slapped him.
Workers and quarry owners told Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem that soldiers have interrupted production about twice a year since 2008.
The recent escalation in Beit Fajjar has prompted observers and residents to speculate that Israel is collectively punishing the village after Israeli forces killed two of its residents Israel says stabbed and injured a soldier in mid-March near the settlement of Ariel.
The two young men died as Israeli forces prevented medics from providing them with first aid after they were shot.
Video emerged showing the badly injured youths, Ali Jamal Muhammad Taqatqa, 19, and Ali Abd al-Rahman al-Kar Thawabta, 20, lying motionless on the ground, receiving no medical attention, as Israelis in military uniform tended to a soldier.
B’Tselem views the Israeli attacks on the quarries as part of a broader pattern of actions to paralyze the Palestinian economy.
“The crackdown on Palestinian quarries in Beit Fajjar is part of an Israeli policy to concentrate Palestinian activity in enclaves throughout the West Bank and de facto annex the rest of the land,” the organization stated last month.
The Israeli army told Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press that the closures were due to the quarries operating without permits and because they “posed safety and environmental hazards.”
But Israel has issued no new permits to Palestinian quarries since 1994.
At the same time, Israel allows Israeli-operated quarries to run in the occupied West Bank, netting approximately $900 million a year.
These quarries operate illegally under international law by plundering the resources of occupied land for the benefit of the Israeli economy and settlers.
In January, Human Rights Watch called on international firms involved in this illegal quarrying to end their role in Israeli-settlement businesses.
In its report, the group noted the systematic discrimination whereby Israel issues permits to European companies that operate in the settler quarries, while denying licenses to dozens of Palestinian quarries.
Beit Fajjar resident Ibrahim Thawabtah, who manages quarries in the area, told B’Tselem that he came to expect Israeli raids twice a year, but there had been five assaults on the quarries in recent weeks.
“Every raid forces us to shut down operations, because the equipment and excavator are confiscated,” he said.
The permit for Thawabtah’s quarry expired in 2012 and he has not been able to get a new one.
The family says the Civil Administration has carried out no inspections and made no requests for improvements in environmental or safety measures.
Over the years, Palestinian quarry owners have paid hundreds of thousands of shekels to retrieve their equipment. But this time, occupation authorities have held onto the equipment.
Quarry owner Shadi Taqatqa told Human Rights Watch he has paid around $1,300 in fines since 21 March, but still hasn’t gotten his equipment back.
Now the military is demanding that retroactive extraction fees be paid to the Civil Administration.
Abed Taweel, another quarry owner, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers threatened to confiscate more equipment if he resumed quarrying. His quarry employed 45 workers, but now is virtually shut down.
“The entire economy in the area freezes and about 200 laborers, who support hundreds of family members, are stuck without work,” Thawabtah told B’Tselem.
The 40 quarries in Beit Fajjar provide jobs to around 3,500 people, according to B’tselem.
But the interruption of the quarries has a ripple effect beyond Beit Fajjar – stopping production in local stone factories that have contracts with Gulf States and Jordan.
“A lot of other factories in the area, such as brick factories, stonemasons, wood workshops and other businesses such as freight trucks, water providers and others cannot operate because of the situation and sustain heavy losses,” said Thawabtah.
About 15,000 Palestinian jobs depend on the stone and marble industry, according to the World Bank.
Destroying the Palestinian economy
Most of the quarries are located in Area C on land that is privately owned by Palestinians.
Area C is the designation given to about 60 percent of the West Bank where Israeli occupation forces retain absolute control under the terms of the 1993 Oslo accords, including authority to issue, renew or cancel permits to operate any business.
Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian quarries are among the most expensive costs of the occupation, according to a 2011 report produced the Palestinian Authority’s economy ministry and the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem.
The World Bank also estimated that stone quarrying and mining in the West Bank is a potential $30 billion industry for Palestinians. As it is, it generates only $250 million per year.