Andrew Ross, Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel (Verso, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Andrew Ross (AR): Sadly, there is not an extensive literature on Palestinian livelihoods. Palestine-watchers are focused on other things—land theft, demolitions, population displacement, soldier brutality, mass incarceration, the spread of settlements—and all for very good reasons. As a result, perhaps, there is less knowledge about what working-class people, especially, do to put food on the table every day for their families. I wanted to help fill that gap in attention. In addition, and just as surprisingly, there is no published study of the West Bank’s stone industry, which draws on the rich, historic legacy of Palestinian stonemasonry. The industry is the largest private sector employer, and the biggest contributor to exports and GDP. I felt that writing about the stone products and the manpower that accompanies them on their journey from the quarries to construction sites would be a good way to tell the story about the colonial nature of economic interdependency between Palestinians and Israelis, while documenting the routines of those who work in the industry and in construction. Lastly, I wanted to add some texture to a debate about “Who Built Israel?” which has long been obscured by nationalist mythologies.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AR: Most of my book is based on extensive interviews with stone and construction workers, at every point in the production and supply chain—in quarries, factories, workshops, at the checkpoints, and on construction sites inside the Green Line and the settlements themselves. I also interviewed a range of company owners, officials in the new trade unions in the West Bank and Israel, and engineers and architects involved in restoring Palestinian built heritage (at Riwaq, Bethlehem’s Center for Cultural Heritage Preservation, and Taawon’s Old City Revitalization Project). The book also features some case studies: two national-level building projects in the West Bank (Rawabi and the Palestinian Cement Factory), and, in Jaffa, an analysis of what I call Ottomania—or gentrifiers’ new appetite for vintage décor and buildings in all that remains of the old city.
Another part of the book reviews the history of employment in the construction industry, from the last decade of the Ottoman era through the Mandate, and then after the Nakba and Naksa—to confirm the decisive role played by Palestinian laborers and masons in the building of houses and infrastructure. There have been at least three large-scale efforts to replace them: in the Conquest of Labor campaign in the early decades of the twentieth century; then after 1948, with the importation of Mizrahi Jews; and again after the first intifada with the recruitment of migrant workers from overseas. In spite of these efforts, which were only partially successful, employers have always preferred Palestinian workers, and still do (today, there are more workers from the West Bank employed in Israel and the settlements than ever before).
One of the arguments arising from that history is the principle of political sweat equity—building a country should translate into political rights within it. Palestinians have put in more than a century of toil building the Jewish “national home,” and most other assets on these lands. What rights accrue from that long inventory of labor, and how can this record of contributions feed into the transitional justice claims needed to bring about the one-state solution with full rights for all?
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AR: I have written several books based on labor ethnography in a style I call “scholarly reporting,” and Stone Men is written in that vein, as a blend of frontline reporting and field research.
Most recently, I had been working on migrant worker rights in the United Arab Emirates (The Gulf: Hard Labor/High Culture), and so when I shifted my attention to Palestinian labor, I realized I was interviewing “migrant workers in their own land.” I found that, in spite of their nearly identical labor, there are many differences between these respective workforces, and also with Israel’s own migrant workers. For example, the largely South Asian workforce in the Gulf, in common with laborers in Israel, from countries like China, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and Thailand, send their wages home, whereas Palestinians spend their pay on Israeli goods and Israeli prices. The latter also go home every night, imposing no burdens on the Israeli state. And, over the years, as more and more Palestinians have moved off the land and into wage labor, it has made it easier for settlers to seize the land. These are some of the many advantages Palestinian workers bring to the Israeli economy.
So, too, I would characterize the Gulf workforce in terms of bonded labor—because of high rates of recruitment debt and ties to the sponsor. Palestinians are more like a compulsory workforce—not forced labor, but hardly free—because the alternatives, in the West Bank, do not generate an adequate wage, and this is by design, of course, as a result of Israeli policies.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AR: Stone Men is written for an educated public readership, and so I tried not to take for granted any specialist knowledge about the region or the history of historic Palestine. One of my hopes is that the arguments about labor-based political equity will feed into the fast-moving debate about a single, democratic state with civil and political rights for all. I have not seen that argument play a role in such discussions. I am also active in the BDS movement (I serve on the Organizing Committee of USACBI) and I am hoping the book will encourage BDS advocates to take a closer look at daily life on the ground for most Palestinians. In sheer numbers, it is fair to say that most BDS folks are not regional specialists, and they tend to focus exclusively on the most egregious violations of human rights.
It is important, for example, to see how capitalist conduct intersects with settler colonialism. In many ways, the occupation is good for profit-takers on both sides of the Green Line. On the Palestinian side, there are the crony, or comprador, capitalists around the PA, the stone industry owners themselves, who constitute a smaller petty-bourgeois economy, and the middlemen subcontractors who take a cut from the labor supply chain. Then there is the penetration of finance economy into the West Bank, a whole other story that does not get enough attention. That creditors can do business as usual—offering long-term mortgage and auto loans—with a population under military occupation and in conditions of extreme instability, is a remarkable example of risk-averse capitalism. The resulting debt burden is not a direct result of the occupier’s policies, but it does dovetail with the overall Israeli doctrine of economic pacification.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AR: I am currently working on two projects: one involves field work on affordable housing challenges in Central Florida; and the other involves research with formerly incarcerated persons on criminal justice debt.
J: How environmentally destructive is the West Bank stone industry?
AR: To some degree, Palestinians suffer from the same “resource curse” as oil-rich countries. The stone industry (sometimes known as “white oil”) is only lightly regulated and so strip-mining ravages the environment and sickens the workforce. The environmental impacts are better-known because they are all too visible on the landscape. In my interviews, especially those conducted in workers’ homes, talk often turned to the topic of occupational hazards of working with stone. An acquaintance at Beit Jala hospital told me that a majority of the patients there at any one time are from the stone villages, and that their symptoms correspond to these well-documented health impacts. However, it is a sensitive issue, especially cancer, and so the problems are not spoken about publicly. My book includes an inquiry into these ailments, and indeed the new unions are very much focused on safety standards and their implementation, both in the West Bank and also in Israel where the rate of accidents in construction is much higher than in other developed countries.
Excerpt from the Book
All across the world, people 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, and 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 twelfth largest stone producers in the world, ranking just behind the United States and ahead of Russia.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Without any professional training, they built palaces, hilltop villages, and township cores that are much admired today as examples of “architecture without architects.” From the mid-nineteenth 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 twentieth 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. Even after the Israeli authorities imposed a collective punishment for the first intifada 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.
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? If and when negotiations 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.
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 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 forty 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 thirty years. In a way, it’s really my country too, isn’t it?”