Quarrying the Stones of Palestine


An interview with Andrew Ross, author of Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israelby Matan Kaminer. This interview originally appeared in LeftEast.

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Palestine/Israel is often thought of as “poor in natural resources,” particularly by comparison to its oil-rich neighbors in the Middle East. You show that stone for building is actually a critical natural resource. What difference does this make for our understanding of the country’s history and current political economy?

It’s an instructive comparison. The West Bank’s stone industry is hardly a secret – it’s the largest private sector employer by far – but it does not get much attention from Palestine-watchers. Not even the international solidarity community has shown a great deal of interest in the everyday livelihoods of Palestinians. As a labor studies scholar, that was a point of entry for me, since at the time I started my field research I had been focused on the conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf States. Palestinians who cross the Green Line into Israel, and indeed any of the West Bank’s internal barrier checkpoints, are “migrant workers in their own land,” so when I was barred entry to the UAE, I continued it in Palestine. The big difference with regard to resources, of course, is that Palestinians own their stone industry, but are not in control of it. Most companies are small and family-owned, but Israeli authorities determine the distribution of the product: 75% is sourced to Israel, and only a small volume is permitted to be exported. Palestinians suffer from the same “resource curse” as oil-rich countries to some degree, because the environmental damage from quarrying and factory processing is considerable, and reliance on a single, extractive industry is economically risky, especially when Israel denies access to the deposits in Area C (the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control) . But it’s a resource with a very deep cultural history behind it. The craft of Palestinian stonemasons is venerated and had been highly prized for centuries.

MK: What are the consequences of being forced to rely on this extractive industry for Palestinians? What are its environmental and health effects?

It is a win-win situation for the Israelis. After 1967, they effectively outsourced their stone industry and the environmental hazards associated with it. For West Bank Palestinians it is a mixed blessing. While wages are higher in the industry than in any other manufacturing sector, the environmental costs of strip mining are quite high, and due to the lack of effective regulation employees are vulnerable to the well-documented health impacts of working with stone. An acquaintance at Beit Jala hospital told me that 80% of the cases there are from the stone villages, and the complaints correspond to these documented occupational ailments. But it’s a sensitive issue, especially cancer, and so the problems are not spoken about publicly. I spent a good deal of time inquiring into safety standards and their implementation.

One of the big challenges is that this is an industry of small family owners, so it is not only undercapitalized, but also under-regulated and under-professionalized. The other is that Palestinian Authority officials do little to inspect workplaces, and the unions in the industry are weak. There is no real pressure on employers to supply safety equipment, and the codes of manliness often deter workers from wearing them.

Are stocks of building material expected to run out?

Much of the good remaining stone is in Area C and is all but off-limits to Palestinian producers for the time being. They have to smuggle in equipment and work around the clock on the weekend to avoid harassment by soldiers. There is a good deal of anxiety about dwindling supplies, but also a well-founded faith that the authorities will open up access to Area C extraction. After all, there is no good reason for Israelis to shut down the industry – it serves their construction industry very well – but they make the logistics difficult enough to keep Palestinian producers down, and operating only on the buyers’ terms, as with most other aspects of the Occupation economy.

The book points to the importance of technological changes in the construction industry to what one could call the “material politics” of the conflict. Can you highlight a few instances of such change for our readers and discuss their consequences?

In the book, I follow the path of stone and labor from the quarries through the factories and across checkpoints into Israel and the settlements. At every point along the way, the Occupation regime throws up challenges, some technological in nature. At the quarries, for example, Israeli authorities do not allow Palestinian producers to use dynamite for extraction—stone has to be sawn out of the ground. That’s a huge disadvantage when Palestinians have to compete with producers in other countries and with the handful Israeli-owned crushing facilities in Area C. At the construction end of the chain, technology and building standards in Israel have not kept up with international norms because of over-reliance on cheap labor from the West Bank and overseas migrants. The result is a high casualty rate on the job. You can see the same predicament in the Gulf states.

I found your discussion of the Israeli shift from stone to concrete in construction very illuminating. It resonates with other scholars’ analyses of capitalism and the modern state as preferring homogeneous, “smooth” materials over the chunky materiality of found reality, which requires a lot of embodied, specific skill to manipulate. Does this analysis resonate? Can you reflect on the reasons for this technological shift and its effects?

The original rationale behind the shift was the decision to reduce reliance on skilled Palestinian masons who worked with local stone; I cover this in some detail in a case-study of the “Battle of Tel Aviv.” Excluding Arab labor from the building of Tel Aviv generated so much conflict that the Jewish founders chose to substitute new materials – silicate brick, then cement and concrete – for the staple regional sandstone known as kurkar. Over time, a “cult of concrete” developed, and concrete became the signature mark of Israeli modernity – its tough, unyielding and enduring character was supposed to reflect the profile of the brave new state.

For sure, there were many capitalist efficiencies to be gotten from the use of concrete, not least from de-skilling that accompanied its introduction. But a lurch in taste toward worn and seasoned surfaces took place after the Occupation of the Old City in Jerusalem, largely driven by the religious interest in exposing the landscapes of Jewish antiquity. On the secular side, in the real estate market, by the 1980s and 1990s, the rough texture of vintage stone had made a sharp comeback. The rage for antique décor – what I call Ottomania – kicked in. The march of gentrification into the urban quarters of Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem that remained intact after the War of 1948 saw renovated old buildings fetching top dollar on the real estate market. Anything old is now valued highly, to the degree that Israelis want “weathered” stone from Palestinian producers. That relatively new appetite for non-smooth vintage surfaces is nothing if not a niche capitalist development, and hardly unique to the region, but it is in sharp contrast to Israeli efforts to eradicate all physical remnants of the region’s built heritage after 1948, and it is resulting in the displacement of Palestinians from the remaining old urban quarters, in Jaffa especially, but also in Haifa and Jerusalem.

Earlier you mentioned codes of manliness. The book’s title is (emphatically?) Stone Men. What kind of gendered dynamics did you observe around stone quarrying and construction work in Palestine?

It’s a masculine trade, and women in the industry are generally found in clerical and sometimes managerial, roles. (Workforce participation among Palestinian women is one of the lowest rates in the world.) Because much of the industry is family-based, the intergenerational bonds between fathers and sons are very important, as is the relationship between brothers who often work on the same construction crew. Due to increases in automation, the handheld craft of chiseling and dressing stone is in decline and men who still do this piece work enjoy a certain status, often at the cost of their health, while those who work with machines are sometimes seen as lacking the right masculine “stuff.” One of the long-term shifts in male employment is from farming to waged labor, and it has political consequences. As the attachment to livelihoods on the land weakens, it is easier for settlers to take over that land, whether through sales or through expropriation by the authorities. Arguably, this has been Israeli policy since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, directly enabled by the employment of male Palestinian construction workers inside Israel, and, to a much lesser degree, of women in Israeli agriculture. That said, the skills learned on the job are often applied to building the family home in the West Bank so it’s not a one-way street.

Your book sheds light on one meaning of stone that even people very interested in Palestine have tended to miss. But stone also has another meaning, which is very visible in discourse on Palestine: that of the stone as a weapon, as in the phrase “the children of the stones” used to describe the youth of the First Intifada or Palestinian uprising. What kinds of connections do you see between these two meanings?

The meaning of the “stones of Palestine” has shifted somewhat since the heyday of stone-throwing in the Intifada, even though it’s still common to find youth slinging them at soldiers in clashes. The new meaning has to do with the revival of interest in the built heritage of the region, and the efforts of restoration groups that have sprung up over the last two decades to bring old buildings back to life, along with some of the venerable masonry skills. Vintage stone-and-mortar dwellings do not (yet) have the added value that timeworn real estate has in Israel, but they have other, more political, meanings. Restored and listed buildings are bulwarks against seizure by settlers, they are markers of longstanding indigenous Palestinian residence on the land, and they are key to reviving rural food economies and networks.

Among my interviewees in this field of architectural conservation (I studied the work of Riwaq in Ramallah, Taawon’s Old City Revitalization Program in Jerusalem, and the Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem) there were not a few who saw this campaign to restore the built Ottoman-era environment as putting “Palestinian facts on the ground.” I suppose you could see that as using cultural heritage as a kind of weapon, one used to defend territory, retain land, and reinforce national pride. In addition, and in contrast to Israel’s “biblical archeologists,” who are interested only in artifacts and buildings from ancient Jewish kingdoms, the Palestinian work in this field is more likely to preserve the mish-mash of historical layers, reflecting the legacy of all the peoples who have lived in historical Palestine over the centuries.   

Finally, I found your extension of the idea of “sweat equity” in the book to have quite sweeping implications. If workers have some right to the fruits of their labor which is not exhausted by the wages they are paid, should this principle be limited to the case of Palestinian workers in Israel? If generalized, does the principle imply a total rejection of the capitalist logic of ownership?

Ironically, this problem harks back to Locke’s labor theory of property that underpins the North American version of settler colonialism – the principle that you earn rights to the land on the basis of your labor. Historically, that hasn’t worked out well for most laborers, but it got dusted off and re-applied for the Zionist version of settler colonialism, and was a core dogma of Labor Zionism that prevailed over Jewish settlement in Palestine until the 1970s. But who really built the houses of Zion? For sure, Jewish “pioneer” settlers did some part of that labor, though they had to learn their skills from Arab artisans, whom they then tried to exclude from the workforce through the doctrine of “Hebrew Labor.” But the historical evidence shows that Arab workers were always preferred. They were better and cheaper, and they still are. For more than a century, Palestinians have had a hand in almost every asset built between the river and the sea. Should that sweat equity help to reinforce the case for equal civil and political rights in a single state? That is one of the proposals advanced in the book. Is it a rejection of the capitalist logic of ownership? Perhaps, insofar as it challenges the distinction between labor-for-hire and what is often thought of as entrepreneurial labor. But the larger principle has to do with the collective labor that goes into the building of communities, cities, and states. These days, all over the world – whether in New York, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Tel Aviv, or Sydney – exploited migrant labor is the workforce standard for such enterprises. The difference, in Israel and the settlements, is that Palestinians have been forced (and it pretty much is a compulsory workforce) to construct houses, roads, and walls on land that was once their own. What kind of rights should flow from that century-long record of contributions?

Andrew Ross is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University, whose work combines scholarly inquiry, investigative reporting and activist perspectives. Much of his research concerns the built environment in sites as far afield as Phoenix, Arizona and Abu Dhabi. His latest book, Stone Men (Verso, 2019) looks at the stone industry in the West Bank and the complex role of this material in the Israeli colonization drive and Palestinian resistance. Matan Kaminer, a member of LeftEast’s editorial board and also a student of labor and colonization in Israel/Palestine, spoke to Prof. Ross about his book and its implications.

This interview originally appeared in LeftEast.

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