“They Demolish Our Houses while We Build Theirs”

The West Bank’s central highlands harbor some of the best quality dolomitic ...

This article is excerpted from Andrew Ross’s Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel. Today the business of quarrying, cutting, fabricating, and dressing is Palestine’s largest source of employment and generator of revenue, supplying the construction industry in Israel, as well as in other Middle East countries and overseas. For decades, the hands building Israel’s houses, schools, offices, bridges, and even its separation barriers have been Palestinian. Looking at the Palestine–Israel conflict in a new light, Stone Men asks how this record of achievement and labor can be recognized.

Palestinians honor the olive tree as an abiding symbol of their ethnic heritage. By some estimates, more than a million trees have been felled by Israeli bulldozers, uprooted by soldiers, or burned by West Bank settlers since 1967.1 The groves that remain have acquired a more exalted status. While their role as a primary source of income has diminished, they are more and more identified with the Palestinian people’s steadfast attachment to land that is constantly at risk of seizure or theft. All across the world, people now recognize the olive tree as an icon of Palestinian survival, but much less is known about the significance of the limestone outcroppings that poke through the surface of the orchard soil. Though they are often an affliction to olive growers, these stone deposits are now Palestinians’ most valuable natural resource. As Stone Men documents, they have long played a key role in the ongoing drama that pits the Palestinian people against their colonizers.

The central highlands of the West Bank harbor some of the best quality dolomitic limestone in the world, and the business of stone quarrying, cutting, fabrication, and dressing is the Occupied Territories’ largest private employer and generator of revenue, supplying the construction industry in Israel, along with several Middle Eastern countries and even more overseas. This sector boasts more than 1,200 firms, and it accounts for almost 25 percent of national industrial production. Its output is the single biggest industrial share of the Occupied Territories’ GDP, and overall reserves of stone are valued at $30 billion. Remarkably, for such a small population, by 2014, Palestinians were the 12th-largest stone producers in the world, ranking just behind the United States and ahead of Russia.2

The West Bank has two abundant natural resources—stone and water—that are notably scarce in Israel and therefore in great demand. Under the Oslo Accords, Israel can siphon off up to 80 percent of West Bank water reserves from the Sea of Galilee and the rain-fed mountain aquifer by deploying advanced technology to pump from the lowest levels. By contrast, Palestinians quarry most of the subsurface stone, and they own all of the factories and workshops where the cutting, fabrication, and finishing is done. While the Occupied Territories are rarely compared to countries that are economically reliant on the extraction of a single resource, they do have something in common with oil producers like Angola or Nigeria, where activists struggle to protect their fellow citizens from environmental harm, on the one hand, and from predatory profiteers and kleptocratic officials, on the other. In fact, West Bank stone is sometimes referred to as “white oil,” and its people suffer, in their own way, from the “resource curse” that delivers a range of problems, along with some prosperity, to countries with such a precious natural asset.

It would be no exaggeration to say that the “stone men” of Palestine have built almost every state in the Middle East except their own.

In the case of Palestinians, the Israeli demand for their stone presents a paradox. Aside from the cheap, skilled labor of construction workers, stone is the primary Palestinian commodity that Israelis need to physically build out their state, along with their ever-expanding West Bank colonies. Palestinian quarries have long supplied the raw material for building the houses of Zion, while Palestinian towns and villages supplied the builders. By far the vast bulk of Palestinian stone (more than 75 percent) finds its way into the Israeli market, underpinning the dependency on the occupying power. In fact, stone makes up half of the country’s exports across the Green Line, though much of it is also used in the West Bank to construct “facts on the ground” (Jewish settlements and security infrastructure established prior to any legal recognition).

But the industry is no less central to Palestinians’ efforts to erect their own physical bulwarks against the Occupation and settler expansion. Everyone, on both sides, wants to reinforce their presence and claims on territory, and so the use of local stone—weathered, in some cases, to give it a vintage appearance—suggests an authentic, long-standing connection to the land. Far from inert, then, the stones of the West Bank—and not just the smaller ones that the much-lionized “children of the stones” throw at soldiers—are an expressive frontline ingredient of the landscapes where the national conflict is played out.

With these ample deposits under their feet, it is no surprise that the region’s stonemasons developed top-notch artisanal skills and have long been venerated and sought after for their services. During the Ottoman and British Mandate eras, every large village in historic Palestine hosted a master mason who designed and constructed homesteads and common-use buildings. These craftsmen and their crews inherited and passed on tools, techniques, and know-how, serving as stewards and modernizers of the regional Arab vernacular styles.3 Without any professional training in design or planning, they built palaces, hilltop villages, and township cores that are much admired today as examples of “architecture without architects.” From the mid-19th century, the masons were regionally employed in city building (in Jaffa, Haifa, Acre, Hebron, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem), and later, when other Arab countries (Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE) in the region needed their expertise, they were indispensable to nation-building. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the “stone men” of Palestine have built almost every state in the Middle East except their own.

Of all these countries, Israel has been the biggest beneficiary of Palestinian manpower and raw materials. Despite efforts, early and late, to exclude them from the building trades, Palestinians have always played an essential role in the physical and economic construction of what the 1917 Balfour Declaration called the Jewish  national home.” This has been the case from the turn of the 20th century, when the Jews of Ottoman Palestine, whether Sephardic and partly assimilated, or Ashkenazi Zionists and largely separatist, depended on their building skills. Palestinians’ contribution to construction was stepped up during the modernizing wave of economic expansion under the British Mandate, and it continued after 1948, when the newly established state of Israel used their labor to help house the influx of Jewish settler immigrants. Since 1967, when the West Bank and Gaza were secured as a reservoir of cheap labor, Israel’s dependency on Palestinian workers has proved difficult to shake off.

During the Mandate era, Zionist leaders aimed their policy of Hebrew Labor (avoda ivrit) at the exclusive use of Jewish workers in Jewish-owned businesses. But since many employers, especially in building, continued to prefer the cheaper and more proficient Arab workers, with generations of construction experience in the region, the efforts to enforce this embargo, even when it was backed by force, were only partly successful. Sectors of the construction workforce were Arab-free only in the years immediately after 1948, when the Palestinians who remained in the new Israeli state were under military lockdown and unable to travel. Within a few years, however, they could once again be found everywhere on building sites, and, after 1967, they were joined en masse by their West Bank and Gaza brethren. At the peak of the open borders era (which ended in the early 1990s), up to 40 percent of the West Bank and Gaza workforce was employed inside the Green Line, primarily engaged in construction, and generating a significant share of Israeli GDP. Even after the Israeli authorities imposed a collective punishment for the first intifada (1987–91) by canceling work permits and importing overseas migrants (from Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Poland, Nigeria, and China) as a replacement workforce, they were unable to stamp out employers’ abiding preference for Palestinian labor. By the first quarter of 2017, the number of West Bank Palestinians employed to meet Israel’s housing shortage had surpassed the pre-intifada levels, with almost 140,000 inside the Green Line and 24,000 in the settlement colonies, and many more working there without permits.4

The premise that Palestinians have earned civil and political rights through their cumulative labor presents one of many pathways beyond the apartheid-style status quo.

What have Palestinians earned collectively from all of these indispensable contributions, and how should these efforts be recognized in the political debate about the future of the lands of historic Palestine? What kinds of rights accrue from the century or more of toil they have devoted to the construction of the Zionist project prior to 1948, the Israeli state, the West Bank settlements, and the Occupied Territories themselves? And what additional forms of restitution are due to a population that was fashioned into a compulsory workforce (not forced labor, but hardly free) after 1948 and 1967? After all, the long inventory of Palestinian labor includes a principal share in building the infrastructure of modernity under the British Mandate (roads, railways, ports, telecom lines, an airport, and other public works); the “first Hebrew city” of Tel Aviv; all the Arab towns and cities that were taken under Jewish control after the Nakba; the ever-expanding metropolis of “unified” and Greater Jerusalem; and the red-tiled hilltop settlements on the West Bank along with their grid of bypass roads, barrier walls, super-highways, and other security structures. All told, Palestinian workers have had a decisive hand in most of the fixed assets on the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean coast.

Should claims arising from this long record of labor participation be part of the “final status” settlement between Israelis and Palestinians? Talks about a permanent settlement have been on hiatus for more than a decade, but if and when they resume, the thorny matters of restitution of property, compensation for losses and moral suffering, and the right to return for refugees will still be on the table. In recent decades, and following the example of German reparations for wartime Jewish harms and losses, every international instance of conflict resolution has addressed the claims of displaced populations. The UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law outlines five forms of reparations: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation (including psychological care and legal/medical services), moral satisfaction (apologies and commemoration), and guarantees of nonrepetition. To date, Israeli negotiators have only been prepared to talk about very limited amounts of monetary compensation. The international consensus favors a comprehensive settlement that includes all of them.

This kind of reparative justice is primarily about repaying debts from the past, but how can the remedies assist more directly in securing a different kind of future? The premise, suggested in this book, that Palestinians have earned civil and political rights through their cumulative labor presents one of many pathways beyond the apartheid-style status quo. As the policies of the Trump and Netanyahu administrations (including, but not limited to, the 2018 relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem) further foreclose any prospect of a practical partition (the “two-state solution”), and as momentum steadily builds behind some vision of a single democratic state within the same boundaries as historic Palestine, it ought to become more admissible that equity earned from building the state translates into political rights within it.

Bonded, indentured, enslaved, or ethnically persecuted workers who built other nations have struggled, on a related basis, for some kind of state-level recognition. In the United States, the hard labor of African, Irish, Chinese, and Mexican Americans has often been held up as a justification for earning full inclusion and civil rights, and, in the case of the descendants of slaves, as grounds for economic reparations. Undocumented immigrants facing deportation today often stake their claim to residence on the basis of their labor. As far as I know, no formal suit of this kind has been filed, and some related pledges—like General Sherman’s promise of 40 acres and a mule as recognition of African American freedmen’s right to own land they had worked as slaves—notoriously went unfulfilled. But, over time, the moral force of the argument has played into the civic and legal acceptance of the rights of these “laboring” populations.

In Palestine, the nation-builders were not brought from elsewhere, they labored on their own ancestral lands, and so the claim for political sweat equity is even stronger. Or, as one of my interviewees put it (he was waiting in a checkpoint line to go and work inside the Green Line): “I’ve been building homes every day over there for 30 years. In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?” icon

  1. Cesar Chelala, “Palestinian Olive Trees: Destroying a Symbol of Life,” Counterpunch, November 3, 2015.
  2. The data is cited in Palestine Trade Center et al., State of Palestine National Export Strategy: Stone and Marble: Sector Export Strategy 2014–2018 (Ramallah, 2014), p. 1.
  3. Physician and folklorist Tawfik Canaan documents the craft in The Palestinian Arab House, Its Architecture and Folklore (Syrian Orphanage Press, 1933).
  4. Although the percentage of the Palestinian workforce employed in Israel in 2017 was slightly lower than at its peak in 1988, the overall numbers were higher. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics Labor Force Survey, January–March 2017: “The number of employed individuals employed in Israel and Israeli settlements was 139,600 in the 1st quarter 2017 … Of these, 68,500 had a permit, 48,700 worked without any permit and 22,400 employed individuals have an Israeli identity card or foreign passport.” An additional 24,000 worked in settlements, while almost 60 percent were employed in construction. Bank of Israel data for the first quarter of 2018 showed unemployment rates in Israel at 3.7 percent, in a steady state of decline from the high levels after 2008. Economic Indicators: Israeli Economic Data (2017).
Featured image: West Bank Palestinians in the Old City of Jerusalem. Photograph by the author