Palestinians' stones cut both ways
The West Bank has a prosperous stonecutting industry, but much of its
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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