Israel occupation forces (IOF) closed down about 35 Palestinian quarries in the occupied 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 Palestinian 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, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report states.
The IOF 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 IOF told Human Rights Watch in a letter that the quarries were operating without permits and posed safety and environmental hazards.
However, since 1994, the IOF has systematically refused to issue permits for Palestinian quarries, even as it allocated large swaths of land in the occupied West Bank for quarries in illegal Israeli settlements operating in violation of international law.
The timing of the closures raises concerns that the Israeli authorities may be punishing village residents for acts they did not commit.
According to the HRW report, the IOF 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.
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.
HRW 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.
HRW 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.”
The owners reported making multiple attempts to get permits for their quarries since the 1990s, but the Civil Administration ignored or refused their requests.
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. E
quipment would be returned, the letter said, after quarry owners paid confiscation fines and retroactive extraction fees and promised to end operations.
The Israeli 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.”