Palestinians' stones cut both ways

The West Bank has a prosperous stonecutting industry, but much of its

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The welcome mat to this village of 9,000 is the mounds of stones that litter the road to town like dingy snowdrifts.

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.

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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.

Of the $418 million in total output from the stone-materials sector in 1998, the most current figures available, more than two-thirds was exported, primarily to Israel, says Samir Hulileh. A former official at the Palestinian Ministry of Economy and Trade, Mr. Hulileh now serves as the marketing and sales manager at Bethlehem's Nassar Investment Co., the largest Palestinian stone-export company. Smaller factories like those here in Beit Fajjar say that at least 80 percent of their output goes to Israel.

Therein, for some, lies the paradox. While sons were throwing small stones at Israeli soldiers, fathers were cutting larger slabs into shape for Israeli building projects, oftentimes in the controversial Jewish settlements that pepper the territories Israel occupied in 1967. According to United Nations resolutions, the settlements are illegal, and they are still one of the key sore points in peace negotiations.

"We know this industry grew dramatically during the occupation," says Hulileh. "This sector has been in a boom for the past 15 years because of the huge demand of the Israeli market, and that market is still quite significant."

He says that Nassar Co. does not sell directly to settlements, but to Israeli contractors who are free to build wherever they want. "This is a market. When someone comes to buy, they don't have to say where they need to use it," says Hulileh.

At one small factory with a din of machines sawing and craftsmen chiseling, owner Ali Takatka shrugs his shoulders at the question of where his stones go when they leave Beit Fajjar. "The business of stonecutting gives people here what they need to survive," says Mr. Takatka, a middle-aged man who wears a tweed jacket and slacks on the job.

But his workers, stouter men in dusty work clothes who get paid day rates, rapidly spring into debate over the matter. "I don't like it, but I have no alternative. This is how I make a living," says Abdel Rahim Thawata, a father of 16 children, two of them sons in Israeli prison.

Employer and employee alike blame the Israeli government for not allowing them to export. They also complain of getting cheated in business deals with Israeli contractors. Then they blame the Palestinian Authority for not giving the village any financial assistance, despite their belief that Beit Fajjar is bound to be one of the highest contributors to the Palestinian gross domestic product. They say that the Palestinian Authority doesn't sponsor housing projects, as Israel has always done for its citizens, to stimulate the building sector and control urban planning.

And then, after all, they blame their own for the state of life in the village. There is currently no municipality, and its mayor resigned more than a month ago over a political dispute.

"This village isn't really a village anymore. It has become a city," says Mr. Thawata. "The Palestinian Authority won't help us, we can't get the municipality to repave the main road, and the dust from the factories is harming the environment.

"And yet," he continues, "the name of Beit Fajjar is so famous that people think we're rich. It's not true. Panhandlers come through here all the time, asking for money. They don't understand that we're just working to put food on the table."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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