By Ethan Bronner, The New York Times – 7 Mar 2009
BEITAR ILIT, West Bank – Boulders the size of compact cars are carved out here at a vast quarry near Bethlehem and pushed noisily through grinders, producing gravel and sand that go into apartment buildings in this rapidly growing Israeli settlement and all across Israel itself.
The land of the West Bank is, of course, disputed. Israel occupies it, and the Palestinians want it for a future state. But more and more of it is gone – quarried by Israeli companies and sold for building materials, a practice that is the focus of a new legal challenge.
“Israel is transferring natural resources from the West Bank for Israeli benefit, and this is absolutely prohibited not only under international law but according to Israeli Supreme Court rulings,” said Michael Sfard, lawyer for the Israeli rights group Yesh Din, which is bringing the case to the high court next week. “This is an illegal transfer of land in the most literal of senses.”
Sand and rocks might seem like trivial resources in a country that is half desert. But with strict environmental restrictions on quarrying because of the noise and dust produced, they turn out to be surprisingly valuable. Building contractors are often caught in the Negev Desert stealing them by the truckload in the dead of night. A 2008 government study predicted a serious shortage of raw building materials within a decade.
So the 10 or so expanding West Bank quarries that are the focus of the legal challenge now account for nearly a quarter of the sand and gravel Israel uses, 10 million tons out of 44 million yearly. Palestinians are incensed and say that if there is ever to be a prospering Palestinian economy, control over their natural resources is essential.
“This is causing harm in a real way,” said Sam Bahour, a Palestinian entrepreneur and businessman in Ramallah. “It is an example of the way in which economic interests in Israel are perpetuating the occupation. It makes it so much harder to end.”
The Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 states that occupying powers may not remove natural resources, and that any gain obtained from their exploitation must be kept in a designated fund for the local population. That is how the United States military handles oil in Iraq.
Since the status of the West Bank before Israel won it in the 1967 war is unclear – it was occupied by Jordan after 1948 – many Israeli legal experts say it is wrong to consider the West Bank a classically occupied territory. The Israeli Supreme Court has declined to rule on the legality of Israeli settlements, deeming them a political question even though legal experts abroad consider them illegal.
Still, Israel’s justices have generally issued rulings on the occupation that parallel international law. In the early 1980s, they said that a road could not be built here if it did not benefit the Palestinians.
“A region apprehended in fighting is not an open field for economic exploitation,” the court said. The trade association that represents Israel’s quarrying companies says that everything they do here is in keeping both with
international law and with the regulations set down by the Israeli military, which controls the West Bank. “Royalties are paid, and they are reinvested in the territories and that benefits the Palestinians,” said Dan Catarivas, director of foreign trade for the Manufacturers Association of Israel. “Most of what is quarried is used in the territories themselves, and that, too, is for the benefit of the population.”
But the 2008 government study on building materials found the opposite – that three-quarters of what is quarried in the West Bank goes to Israel. The remainder is bought by Palestinians on the open market. If there were a Palestinian state, that might still be the case, but the owners of the quarries would presumably be Palestinian and planning would be done by Palestinians.
Talk of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza has dimmed since the Palestinian leadership fractured when Hamas took over Gaza and since the right won in the Israeli elections.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in the process of forming Israel’s next government, has said that he wants to build the Palestinian economy and institutions in the West Bank so as to increase the chances of successful Palestinian self-rule. Asked about the quarries, a close aide to Mr. Netanyahu said change might be warranted.
“The new government is going to take a very pragmatic approach to these issues to figure out what will advance the Palestinian economy,” said the aide, Ron Dermer.
Even the Israeli military suggested that the system might need to be rethought. While defending its willingness to license quarrying, both in response to questions from Yesh Din and to a query for this article, it said the policy was now under thorough review.
One concern caused by the quarries is their environmental impact. Itamar Ben David, chief environmental planner for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, served on the board that produced the study about building materials last year.
“I was surprised by how big a portion is supplied to Israel by the West Bank,” he said. “One reason is clearly that planning regulations and environmental assessment are less strong in the West Bank than in Israel. In Israel, nobody wants a quarry near his residential property.”
Palestinian officials say they are troubled by the quarries for the same reasons that Israelis do not like to have them nearby.
“This industry is polluting Palestinian lands and populations,” said Hassan Abu-Libdeh, a special adviser to the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad. “And it is competing with our own industry. So we view it as an aggression. This is just another example of Israeli businesses thriving at the cost of the Palestinian economy.”