Palestinians' stones cut both ways
The West Bank has a prosperous stonecutting industry, but much of its
BEIT FAJJAR, WEST BANK
The welcome mat to this village of 9,000 is the mounds of stones that litter the road to town like dingy snowdrifts.Skip to next paragraph
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Inside, Beit Fajjar tells its story in the sight of men's faces whitened with a chalky film, in the sounds of metal slicing stone, and in the sense of an invisible, airborne powder that tickles the nose and dries the throat.
These stones make up one of the most lucrative products the emerging Palestinian market has to offer. And no place in the West Bank is as well-known for its variety and abundance of stonecutters as is Beit Fajjar.
In an economy that desperately needs to improve its productivity as the Palestinians move closer to declaring their own state this year, the annual average output per worker in the stone industry stands at about $40,000, higher than in any other sector. But the product that Palestinians in this village near Bethlehem are proudest of is also their own worst enemy: They have benefited greatly from Israel's occupation of the West Bank, particularly in the past 15 years, when many of their stones helped build the Israeli settlements that Palestinians so vehemently oppose.
Now, as Palestinians move to "final status" negotiations with Israelis - who began another round of talks with Syrians yesterday - some feel uneasy about a business dynamic that seems to have both harmed and helped their national aspirations.
Somewhere along the line, no one seems to know precisely when, Beit Fajjar carved out a niche in stonecutting. Aging workers here tell stories of their grandfathers transporting stones from the quarries around Bethlehem and Hebron to Beit Fajjar on camelback. After the 1993 peace accords, many newcomers were drawn to the business by expectations of a building boom to help house Palestinian returnees and refugees. But the population influx has been much milder than that, driving prices lower.
Now there are 138 stone production outlets in Beit Fajjar alone - contributing to a total of 650 in the West Bank - which makes for fierce competition. Prices are completely unregulated, sometimes pushing sellers to offer their goods below cost just to close a deal. The product is cut into a rich range of pink, sand, golden, and off-white bricks and tiles popularly known as "Jerusalem stone" - the material with which every building in the holy city must be made, according to Israeli law.
For the outside world, to mention "Palestinians" and "stones" in the same breath is to conjure memories of the intifadah, the 1987-93 Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation. Then, rocks were the preferred weapon of Palestinian youths fighting Israeli soldiers on patrol in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The subsequent peace process has nearly put an end to such violence, making many Palestinians much more interested in doing business with Israelis than in trading volleys of stones and rubber bullets.