(Beit Fajar, West Bank) – Israeli military authorities closed down about 35 Palestinian quarries in the West Bank in late March 2016 and confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of equipment. The crackdown, which has paralyzed the quarries, puts the livelihoods of up to 3,500 workers at risk and highlights the discriminatory nature of Israeli rules for Palestinian quarries, which have been unable to obtain new licenses for more than 20 years.
The military authorities closed the quarries near the village of Beit Fajar on March 21, four days after two residents of Beit Fajar stabbed and wounded an Israeli soldier. The timing of the closures and their multiple nature also raise concerns that it may be an act of collective punishment, which international law forbids.
“The Israeli military has promised to facilitate Palestinian economic development, but instead it is choking a Palestinian-run industry in the West Bank while promoting the same industry in Israeli settlements,” said Sari Bashi, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch.
In justifying the closures, the Israeli military, which has ruled the occupied West Bank for nearly 50 years, told Human Rights Watch in a letter that the quarries were operating without permits and posed safety and environmental hazards. However, since 1994, the military has systematically refused to issue permits for Palestinian quarries, even as it allocated large swaths of land in the West Bank for quarries in Israeli settlements operating in violation of international law.
Issuing permits for Palestinian quarries, and then enforcing reasonable safety and environmental standards, is the way to address any safety or environmental concerns, rather than arbitrarily denying permits and then shutting down unlicensed quarries, Human Rights Watch said.
The timing of the closures raises concerns that the Israeli authorities may be punishing village residents for acts they did not commit. The military raided the Palestinians quarries, confiscating millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, four days after two residents of Beit Fajar, a village near Bethlehem, stabbed and injured an Israeli soldier in the northern West Bank. The last time the military raided quarries and confiscated equipment in the area was on November 25, 2015, three days after another resident of Beit Fajar killed an Israeli woman at the nearby Gush Etzion junction.
The killing of a passerby is a serious crime whose perpetrator should be held accountable. However, Israeli authorities must not punish those who had nothing to do with it, Human Rights Watch said.
Regarding the timing, the military authorities said “the operation was carried out once all conditions for its execution were in place, including resource availability and as per priorities.”
International humanitarian law, applicable in occupied territory, forbids punishing people for acts they did not commit and requires Israel to facilitate normal civilian life for Palestinians to the extent possible, including economic development.
While in the past, the military has returned confiscated equipment after its owners paid hefty fines, now it refuses to return most of the equipment even to those who have paid the fines. A lawyer representing some of the quarry owners, Roni Salman, told Human Rights Watch that the military is conditioning return of the equipment on retroactive payment of extraction fees for stone quarried in the last three and a half years and a commitment that they won’t reopen the quarries. The Israeli military confirmed in a letter to Human Rights Watch that it was demanding retroactive extraction fees.
In a January report, Occupation, Inc., Human Rights Watch recommended that businesses should cease activities in or with settlements. The report documented the Israeli military’s contrasting treatment of Palestinian and settlement quarries as an example of how its discriminatory policies virtually preclude Palestinian economic development in Area C of the West Bank, where the military has full security and administrative control, while encouraging the growth of settlements and the settlement economy.
The military licenses 11 Israeli-administered quarries, which provide 25 percent of the quarrying materials for the Israeli and settlement economies, and pay extraction fees to Israel’s Civil Administration, a branch of its military, and taxes to settlement municipalities. Israel’s exploitation of natural resources for its own economic benefit violates its obligations as an occupying power.
“This is the second time in four months that, following stabbings by residents of Beit Fajar, the Israeli military authorities closed quarries for people who had nothing to do with the attacks,” Bashi said. “Israel should be facilitating Palestinian economic development, not thwarting it under circumstances that raise concerns about collective punishment.”
The Shutdown of Palestinian Quarries
Human Rights Watch interviewed Palestinian quarry owners and workers, an Israeli lawyer representing them, and representatives of the Palestinian Stone and Marble Union. It visited the quarries, reviewed military seizure orders and payment receipts, and collected statistics published by the Israeli government. Human Rights Watch also requested and received a response from the Civil Administration, part of the Israeli military.
Quarry owners and workers said that in the early morning hours of March 21, Israeli soldiers raided the quarry area in Beit Fajar, where approximately 35 quarries operate.
“At 6 a.m., I went down to work,” said Khalil Abu Hussein, a 23-year old quarry worker. “I closed the gate, entered the Bagger [drill rig], and started it up. Then I felt something breaking the window. They had been hiding inside the quarry. There were eight of them. They smashed the window.”
Abu Hussein said soldiers ordered him to restart the equipment, presumably to make it easier to confiscate it. When he refused, they hit him on his back and upper body with their hands and the butts of their guns.
A quarry owner, Abed Taweel, said that the soldiers warned they would seize additional equipment if quarrying resumed. He said soldiers took two excavators and a drill rig from his quarry and stone-work business, which employs about 45 people and is now virtually shut down. He said he was losing the trust of his clients, who were demanding the raw materials they had ordered.
Another quarry owner, Shadi Taqatqa, said that soldiers confiscated a drill rig and a utility vehicle full of expensive equipment. Prior to the raid, he had scaled back operations, quarrying mainly on days, including weekends, when he believed soldiers were less likely to initiate raids. Now, he said, he cannot work at all. Taqatqa showed Human Rights Watch receipts totaling 4,922 NIS (US$1,300) for fines paid since March 21, but he said the military is still holding most of his equipment.
Ahmed Thawabte, 62, removed his equipment before the soldiers came, but he told Human Rights Watch that he too has stopped quarrying for fear of confiscation. Thawabte is a distant relative of the attacker who killed an Israeli woman in November, and during the army’s last raid, soldiers confiscated equipment from him. Human Rights Watch reviewed the confiscation order he received on November 25 for “unlawful quarrying without a license.”
The owners reported making multiple attempts to get permits for their quarries since the 1990s, but the Civil Administration ignored or refused their requests. The owner’s son, Jaber Thawabte, said his family had a quarry license issued before 1994, but in 2012 the Civil Administration refused to renew it. Jaber Thawabte said that during the years when they had the license, for which they paid about 1,000 NIS (US$263) per year, the Civil Administration carried out no inspections and made no requests for improvements in environmental or safety measures.
According to the Palestinian Stone and Marble Union, since 1994, Israel has not issued a single new license for a Palestinian quarry operating in Area C, which covers 60 percent of the West Bank and includes most of its stone deposits. The stone industry in Beit Fajar employs 3,500 people, said Subhi Thawabte, the union leader, and most of the quarries work without licenses. Based on information from the Civil Administration, the World Bank, quarry owners, and union officials, Human Rights Watch calculated that the industry in Beit Fajar, including quarries and stone work factories, is worth at least US$25 million per year.
During a recent visit by Human Rights Watch, there was no activity in the quarries in Area C. One quarry, about 40 meters deep, was empty except for two large metal cans, an overturned plastic chair, some cables, and a wheelbarrow half-filled with rocks. A hot sun shone on the silent quarry walls, which were marked with names of workers responsible for each section.
In a letter to Human Rights Watch, Israel’s Civil Administration said that it shut down the quarries because they were operating without licenses and created safety and environmental hazards. Equipment would be returned, the letter said, after quarry owners paid confiscation fines and retroactive extraction fees and promised to end operations. The Civil Administration did not respond to questions regarding the use of force against Abu Hussein. It added that the quarries were operating on “state land.”
Thawabte, Taweel, and Taqatqa said they had repeatedly tried to prove ownership over the land, but the Civil Administration rejected their claims. Human Rights Watch has documented the legal mechanisms Israel has used to declare nearly 25 percent of the West Bank to be “state land,” despite credible claims of private ownership. According to Civil Administration records, it has allocated 50 percent of state land for Israeli civilian use and just 0.7 percent to Palestinians, even though international humanitarian law bars the use of occupied territory for the benefit of citizens of the occupying power.