On the morning of Monday, 21 March 2016, Israeli Civil Administration and military forces came to the area of Beit Fajjar, a Palestinian town that lies between Bethlehem and Hebron, and raided four Palestinian owned quarries. The raid was the second in the area that month, only a week after the previous one on Monday, 14 March. The forces shut down operations in the quarries, assaulted workers and confiscated expensive equipment without which the quarries cannot function.
In their testimony to B’Tselem field researcher Manal al-J’abri, the owners of two of the raided quarries related that since 2008, such raids take place twice a year, on average. However, they claimed that Israeli forces have stepped up activity to stop operations in the quarries in recent months. The forces have repeatedly confiscated crucial equipment, including tractors, buggers, air compressors, control computers, and various work tools. This appears to be part of an Israeli policy to wear the owners down until they shut down the quarries.
Every such raid and confiscation of equipment entails direct and indirect financial losses. To regain the seized equipment, the Palestinian owners have to repeatedly pay fines amounting to tens of thousands of shekels to cover the costs of moving and storing the equipment in areas controlled by settlements. They also have to pay a lawyer to liaise with the Civil Administration. The testimonies given to B’Tselem indicate that after every raid, the owners are forced to wait anywhere between a month and an entire year until the equipment is returned to them. During that time, the quarries operate partially, significantly below their financial potential. Due to the curtailed operations, the quarry owners cannot meet commitments made to related businesses such as stone-working factories, stonemasons, freight trucks and water providers, causing them substantial losses in turn.
Since the last raid, most quarries remain shut down, for fear the military will confiscate equipment. Some have resumed low level operations.
Khalil Abu Hussein, resident of Hebron and excavator operator at the Beit Fajjar quarries, described what happened on 21 March 2016* to B’Tselem field researcher Manal al-J’abri:*
At about 7:00 A.M., I was working at the Abu Sneina family’s quarry in the area of Khillet Haja in the village of Beit Fajjar, driving an excavator. Suddenly, while I was driving, soldiers shattered the windows of my vehicle. There were about eight soldiers there. I turned the engine off and cut the cable to immobilize the vehicle completely, in case it got confiscated. That made the soldiers angry. Three of them dragged me out of the driver’s seat and threw me down on the ground. 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.
After that, they told me to turn the excavator on. I told them I couldn’t do that anymore, so they went back to beating me. Then four soldiers led me to an excavator in another quarry. All the workers there had run off when they heard the army was entering the quarries. The soldiers ordered me to turn the excavator on there, and I refused. They started hitting me again with their rifles and threw me to the ground. Later they took me back to the first excavator, the one I had been driving. All the way back there, they hit me in the back with their rifle butts.
When we got back to the first excavator, the soldiers told me to turn it on. I tried but it didn’t work. While I was trying to turn it on, two soldiers slapped me in the face. In the end, I told them I couldn’t do it. Then a Civil Administration officer came and put me in a Civil Administration jeep with my hands cuffed in front of me. He took me to another quarry, where he ordered me to turn a bulldozer on. I told him I didn’t know how to operate it, and then the two soldiers slapped me again. The beating and moving between the quarries lasted about an hour. Every time the soldiers wanted me to turn one of the excavators on, they untied my hands, and cuffed them again afterwards.”
*The testimony was given on 23 March 2016
Beit Fajjar is one of the major stone quarrying centers in the West Bank. The repeated interruptions of quarry operations in the area, including assaults against workers and confiscation of crucial, expensive equipment, greatly damage the town’s economy and the livelihood of its 13,500 residents. Forty quarries operate in the area, providing raw materials to some 150 local stonework factories – which employ some 80% of the Beit Fajjar workforce – and some 70% of the concrete, brick, and tar factories in Hebron. The owner of one stonework factory in Beit Fajjar told B’Tselem that the last quarry raid created a dearth of raw material for which he had paid in advance. This puts him at risk of breaching contracts signed with Gulf States and with Jordan, which may cost him hundreds of thousands of shekels in fines. Although the area constitutes a single economic unit – where materials are extracted in the quarries and then processed in factories – it is artificially divided into Area B, which is supposedly under Palestinian civilian control and contains most of the stonework factories, and Area C, in which Israel retains full control over all civilian matters pertaining to land, including planning, building, infrastructure and development, in which most of the quarries are located.
To justify this direct harm to the quarries, Israeli authorities note that they are located in Area C, contrary to rules and regulations dictated by Israel. This has created a situation in which, although the land in which the quarries lie is privately owned by Palestinians, the quarries come under the planning system of the Israeli Civil Administration, which has the authority to issue, renew or cancel permits to operate the quarries. In practice, Israel refuses to issue permits to the Palestinian quarries in Beit Fajjar; since 2012, it has also refused renew permits given to some of the quarries in the 1990s. In contrast, Israel continues to issue new permits for the operation of 11 quarries in the West Bank that are owned by Israelis and were formed in the 1970s on land currently classified as Area C. According to state estimates, 94% of the material extracted from the Israeli-owned quarries is transferred into Israel, in flagrant contravention of international humanitarian law, according to which the resources of an occupied territory must be used for the benefit of the local population, unless it is urgently needed for military purposes. In fact, Israel has controlled the entire West Bank for almost fifty years, exploiting the artificial division into areas A, B and C for its own needs – economic and otherwise. 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 to Israel proper.
Ibrahim Thawabtah, a resident of Beit Fajjar who manages quarries in the area, related the ongoing damage to his business in a testimony he gave to B’Tselem field researcher Manal al-J’abri*:
“I run five quarries in the area of Khillet Haja in Beit Fajjar. Two are in Area B and three in Area C. Twenty-five laborers work in the quarries. About twice a year, the Civil Administration and military raid the quarries in the area and confiscate equipment on the grounds that we’re in Area C. Recently, there have been a lot more raids and assaults on the quarries. My quarries were raided five times lately. Every raid forces us to shut down operations, because the equipment and excavator are confiscated. When that happens in one quarry, the others stop working for fear that their equipment will be confiscated, too. The entire economy in the area freezes and about 200 laborers, who support hundreds of family members, are stuck without work.
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. The quarries in Khillet Haja have been closed for two weeks now, since the raid on 14 March. We tried several times to get permits for the quarries, but all our requests were denied with a variety of excuses.
*The testimony was given on 27 March 2016.