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Occupation economy: taking from the very land they stand on

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Betar Illit quarry  photo by Dror Etkes
Betar Illit quarry photo by Dror Etkes

I couldn’t help but think of the boycott campaign against Ahava cosmetics produced with materials mined in the occupation when Avraham Burg wrote this week in Haaretz “let the right-wing MKs, the Katzes and the Elkins, travel around the world and show the beauty of their faces without the deceptive layer of makeup we [on the left] provided.”

Israel’s “resource wars” are tied to the Occupation – the Occupation economy, to be precise, from olives to beauty products.

Even the land under Palestinians’ feet is subject to extraction under the Occupation. West Bank sand and stone (gravel) are necessary for modern construction: they form road beds and building foundations throughout Israel and the West Bank, where, according to Ethan Bronner, “about 10 such quarries account for nearly a quarter of the sand and gravel Israel uses.” The Israeli government and B’tselem say that the lion’s share of the quarries output – three-quarters of it, in fact – is exported to Israel proper.  

The Inter Press Service notes that aside from not having to pay Palestinian workers as much as they would Israelis, the West Bank quarries have the added cost-saving advantage of not needing to follow the “strict laws governing noise and dust levels associated with quarries inside Israel” (and the noise laws are only getting stricting, c/o Yisrael Beitenu).

This is the same logic as to why shipbreaking is not done in “First World” nations anymore. Get the noise and the pollution out of sight, out of mind (well, out of “First Worlders” sights and minds). Quarry owners further argue that by employing Palestinians, they are helping the local economy. Presumably, if they were in the shipbreaking business, they would argue that the wages paid to shipbreakers outweigh the cost of poisoned fisheries. You can’t get something, like wages, without giving something else up: the environment, public health, an actually viable local economy, your sovereignty, etc.

At least the quarries are financially contributing to the costs of the Occupation that enables them to procure materials at affordable rates! And with all the building restrictions that Palestinians face, what exactly would they do with more than a quarter of the construction materials? Build a road, only to be barred from using it? Lay a building foundation, only to be denied a permit after years of waiting?

And then there is the water, what makes the “desert bloom” (necessary given the fact that only a fifth of Israeli land is capable of supporting agriculture). The use of the Jordan River’s waters often merits a chapter in books that discuss “resource wars,” a term used to refer to competition between countries over natural resources. “Resource wars,” despite the militant potential, are often waged in non-military terms: contracts, bribery, legislation, base building. Those are the means of 21st century “resource wars” – until they turn violent. As Michael T. Klare notes, with the Jordan’s output reduced to a mere trickle of what it was before the Six Day War, it will be extremely difficult to support the region’s growing population (perhaps some 21 million individuals by 2020). This will only increase pressure on the region’s aquifers, which Israeli settlers receive preferential access to. Villages like Nabi Saleh already know full well that the “resource wars” are not geopolitical abstractions. For them, the water war has been an actual, violent conflict for years – and they are losing.

Ben Ehrenreich reports an example of black comedy over water that occurred in 1995: 

During the talks leading up to the deal [Oslo II], Savir recalled, Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei made a habit of gently mocking his Israeli counterpart, Noah Kinarti, by asking permission each time he took a sip of water. “Just a few drops,” Kinarti would supposedly reply.

Ehrenreich then goes on to discuss how the Israel Water Authority physically and legally controls the taps for West Bank residents. The interminable “lines” that divide the Occupied Territories manage to include key wells and site aquifers in no man’s lands that Palestinians can’t access. The Palestinian Water Authority is little more than a repository for unemptied complaint boxes and overly optimistic proposals, a purchasing agent that Palestinians must go through to buy water from an Israeli supplier, Mekorot. The 1995 exchange, it seems, has never been far from the truth. The only difference is the conference room cordiality, which is not apparent in places like Nabi Saleh. 

The “desert bloom,” as Ehrenreich discusses, was from the start seen as a political function. The underclass it depends on has changed (Thais now, not Arabs), but its function remains the same in the eyes of commentators like Shaul Arieli: ”the biblical promise to the Jewish people trumps the Palestinians’ terrestrial rights.” As  Zionist leaders “sought to resettle Jews on the land, in order to shed their urban, European identity and reestablish their ties with the ancient soil of Israel,” Klare writes. A devout Itamar settler sums up the 21st century perspective on this succintly:

“Land is not a prostitute. It is not something to be traded back and forth, to be picked and hacked at like a piece of inanimate property. The land is a living force which belongs to God.”

“Agriculture currently accounts for less than 3 percent of Israel’s GDP but reportedly half its water use,” a 2002 Knesset inquiry reported (according to B’tselem, “per capita use in Israel is three and a half times higher than in the West Bank”). The report, cited by Ehrenreich, went on to argue that despite the “man-made” water crisis caused by Israeli practices, Israeli farmers should not have their water allowances cut too much because “agriculture has a Zionist-strategic-political value, which goes beyond its economic contribution.” 

Thanks to Israeli overuse, Syrian resevoirs, and Jordanian damming, the Jordan River is a toxic trickle, moribund as the two-state solution that takes its banks as borders.

To the irrigators, farmers, builders and quarry owners, the Occupation is an opportunity to make a living, so it is indeed profitable. But their physical contributions to Zionist expansion in the Occupied Territories are even more valuable.

Removing a Palestinian orchard erases one mark of ownership on the land. Planting an Israeli one stamps a new ownership on it. To misquote a Clinton campaign worker, “it’s the land, stupid.”
And, as Joe Dana writes, the Palestinians “have yet to reach their stolen spring.”

Paul Mutter

Paul Mutter is a contributor to Mondoweiss, Foreign Policy in Focus and the Arabist.

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3 Responses

  1. HarryLaw on December 30, 2011, 1:08 pm

    Good article Paul, ” Irrigators, Farmers, Builders and Quarry owners the occupation is an opportunity to make a living, so it is indeed profitable” Yes and it is also highly illegal, water, minerals and other property,rights and interests stolen from Palestinian territory in breach of customary International Law can only be remedied when the Palestinian leadership stop playing footsie under that famous table and challenge that theft in the appropriate legal forums. I made a longer comment regarding the perverse decision by the Israeli High Court on Phillip Weiss’s Report.Joker scratched Tel Aviv in BDS victory, Sorry I jumped the gun.

  2. HarryLaw on December 30, 2011, 1:51 pm

    Just to add, the majority of the produce which comes from the Jordan valley, in a recent study by the Human rights group Bt’selem found that the Israelis had taken control of 77.5 Per cent of this area and prevented Palestinians from using the land or remaining there. Israel has taken control of most of the water resources in the area and has earmarked them for the exclusive use of the settlers {9,400 in 37 settlements and 7 outposts]. The water allocated to the settlers in this area has enabled them to develop intensive farming methods and to work the land all year round, with most of the produce being exported. The water allocated to these settlers is almost one third the quantity of water that is accessible to the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank, water consumption in Bedouin communities for instance is equivalent to the quantity that the UN has set as the minimum needed to survive in humanitarian disaster areas [ B’tselem report. Dispossession and exploitation; Israel’s policy in the Jordan valley and northern dead sea May 2011] Under International Law water is a state owned immovable natural resource sometimes more precious than oil in this area. UN assembly resolution Dec 22nd 2009 states that the Israeli occupying power, not to exploit, to cause loss and depletion of or endanger the natural resources of the OPT, including East Jerusalem and the Occupied Golan Heights.

  3. Graber on January 5, 2012, 1:55 pm

    What struck me most in the Ehrenreich article was the interview with Bassem Tamimi. Ehrenreich made it clear to readers that Israel targeted Tamimi for imprisonment for organizing the weekly nonviolent demonstrators in Nabi Saleh.

    From the article:
    “Tamimi had a strange, stiff sort of calmness about him, as if his long face and blue eyes were directed at some other, less tumultuous world. He had not been home for days. “I am wanted,” he explained, and smiled sadly. Late one night the previous week, Israeli soldiers had arrested his cousin Nabi and then came looking for him.

    “Five days after we talked in March, Tamimi risked a visit to Nabi Saleh. He had been back home for ten minutes when the soldiers arrived at his door. He has been inprison ever since.”

    I’m not certain of the relation of Mustafa Tamimi to Bassem, but I assume that they’re extended family members. And the systematic targeting for imprisonment of Bassem makes me believe that Mustafa was also a marked man.

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