A quarry in the southern West Bank town of Beit Fajjar stands empty on April 5, 2016, after Israeli forces shut it down. (Credit: Human Rights Watch)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- Israeli authorities’ closure of 35 Palestinian quarries in the occupied West Bank since March is threatening the livelihoods of 3,500 workers and may constitute “collective punishment,” a Human Rights Watch report revealed on Thursday
The Civil Administration, a subsection of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) that handles Israeli bureaucratic functions in the occupied Palestinian territory, closed down the quarries in late March and confiscated millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, a move which HRW said highlighted “the discriminatory nature of Israeli rules for Palestinian quarries.”
A COGAT spokesperson told Ma'an that the Civil Administration had approved "temporary licenses” for the planning of four Palestinian quarries last February pending proof of land ownership over the desired location.
“Beit Fajar quarries are illegal so long as they face demolishing orders since they are a nature hazard following unsystematic activity,” the spokesperson said. “The Civil Administration positively considers the regulation of the illegal activities of the quarries and calls their owners to regulate their quarries' legal status. Unfortunately, they have decided not to do so.”
HRW said it believed the move was in retaliation for Palestinian attacks against Israelis undertaken by residents of towns near the quarries. It notably cited the closure of quarries near the village of Beit Fajjar on March 21, days after two village residents were killed after stabbing an Israeli soldier
Previous raids on Palestinian quarries took place in November, after a Beit Fajjar resident stabbed and killed an Israeli woman
near the illegal Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion.
“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 report read.
HRW estimated that the Palestinian stone industry in the Beit Fajjar area was worth $25 million per year, and expressed concerns that the closures constituted a serious blow to the Palestinian economy in a way which would benefit industry in illegal settlements in the West Bank.
“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,” HRW Israel and Palestine Director Sari Bashi said.
In a letter sent to HRW, the Israeli Civil Administration said that it closed down the quarries because they “operate unlawfully and are located within the boundaries of declared state land,”
before adding that the working conditions there constituted “a serious safety hazard” and “damage to the environment and to nature.”
However, Subhi Thawabte, the leader of the Palestinian Stone and Marble Union, countered these claims, saying that Israeli authorities had refused to issue permits for Palestinian quarries located in Area C -- the 62 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control -- since 1994.
COGAT did not immediately respond to a demand for clarification from Ma'an regarding the claim that no proper licenses had been issued for Palestinian quarries since 1994.
Israel has reinstated in recent months a policy of vast land confiscations in Area C, declaring these areas to be “state land.” However, settlement watchdogs have denounced these land grabs as "de-facto confiscation"
of Palestinian land to benefit settlements.
HRW also quoted an owner who said the Civil Administration had never inspected working conditions in his quarry nor asked him to improve environmental and safety measures when he had a valid permit.
“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,” HRW said.
The Civil Administration also confirmed that it had requested that quarry owners “cease illegal operations.” It also fined the owners to reimburse the costs associated with confiscating their equipment, and demanded retroactive “royalties” for stone extracted without permits over the past several years.
Quarry owners told HRW that, despite having paid fines, their equipment had still not been returned to them, marking another costly blow to their livelihoods.
According to HRW, 11 Israeli-administered quarries operate in the occupied West Bank, making up 25 percent of the Israeli quarrying production.
“Israel’s exploitation of natural resources for its own economic benefit violates its obligations as an occupying power,” HRW wrote.