JERUSALEM // Near downtown Jerusalem, a four-storey apartment building is getting a makeover to match the neighbourhood’s British Mandate-era construction. The Israeli owner, Ronen Betzalel, selected a tan stone — almost gold in the late afternoon light — to tile the exterior.
Jerusalem is known all over the world for its shimmering pale stone facade. The pink, yellow and white tiles are made from the aptly-named Jerusalem stone, a kind of limestone which underlies the rocky hills of the Holy Land.
While the stone has been used since ancient times, there is a political dimension to Jerusalem stone today. Most of the stone is extracted from Palestinian quarries and processed in Palestinian factories, in many cases by Palestinians who cannot travel freely to the city they have helped build.
Fifty years ago, Israel conquered the West Bank in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and has militarily occupied the area since. The Palestinian stone industry was developed both in spite of and because of the Israeli occupation.
As one of the few Palestinian industries that relies solely on the production of Palestinian goods to function, it is seen as part of the Palestinian national project. But ironically, there would not be much of a stone industry at all if it were not for Israel either.
According to a 2014 study by Birzeit University professor Suhail Sami Sultan, Israel accounts for 65 per cent of the Palestinian stone market. Locals involved in the industry say that figure has probably grown higher.
Mr Betzalel, the owner of the Israeli BK real estate company, says he is “crazy about” Jerusalem stone and does not have a choice except to build with it in Jerusalem.
In 1918, Ronald Storrs, then the city’s British governor, decreed that all Jerusalem construction must be enveloped in pale limestone to preserve the ancient feel of the city. According to Mr Betzalel, all Jerusalem facades today must be built from at least five centimetres thick Jerusalem stone.
Like many Israeli builders, Mr Betzalel gets his Jerusalem stone tiles from Beit Fajjar, a major hub of the Palestinian stone industry just south of Bethlehem where massive blocks of limestone dot the hilltops, cutting Stonehenge silhouettes. In the village of about 20,000 people, there seem to be stone factories on every corner, with one just across the street from a mosque.
A fine white dust coats every surface in the village, like snow on evergreen trees.
Mr Betzalel’s contact in Beit Fajjar is Mofid Diriya, whose eponymous factory is quiet in late May after the workers have gone home during the Ramadan fast.
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Sitting in his palatial home just outside the factory — covered floor to ceiling in Jerusalem stone, of course — Mr Mofid says that 90 per cent of his business is with Israeli companies. While he has a trade permit to enter Israel, his workers do not, making it impossible for them to deliver the finished stone to Mr Betzalel’s work site.
Instead, he relies on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who can travel freely between the two areas to deliver the stone.
“It’s trade and also a personal connection,” said Mr Diriya of the links between Israelis and Palestinians who work with Jerusalem stone.
Up the hill at one of the few factories open on a Ramadan afternoon, a man at the Baha Company is using a blade splattered in milky mix of dust and water to cut through slabs of Jerusalem stone. The slices are cut into smaller tiles and offloaded onto a wooden platform outside the door.
Ali Salah Thawabta, the 28-year-old son of the owner, sees his family’s stone cutting business as a way to strengthen Palestine.
“We have been occupied for nearly 70 years,” he said, tracing the start of the occupation back to Israel’s founding in 1948, rather than the 1967 war.
“We are at the point where we should stop blaming the occupation. If we feel there is something missing, we have to start producing it ourselves.”
Unlike Mr Mofid’s business, Mr Thawabta said his company avoids working with Israelis and does not sell directly to them.
He notes proudly that the company is “100 per cent Palestinian” but also acknowledges that his stones might make their way from Ramallah into Israel by a reseller, a process he has no control over. He said it is “not acceptable” for Palestinians to sell their stones to Israeli Jews. “One day there is a martyr, and the next day you work with them? It’s not appropriate.”
Mr Thawabta’s stance is not merely ideological.
Two years ago, his 33-year-old cousin, Assam Ahmad Thawabte, was killed by an Israeli soldier. According to the B’Tselem Israeli human rights group, he was shot dead at a junction of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc after he stabbed and killed an Israeli. Another worker at a nearby factory, Shaher Takatka, also expressed ambivalence about working with Israelis even though his company has business dealings with them. He said he has been banned from Jerusalem since 2007 after he was arrested for illegal possession of weapons. Today, he sees an irony in the fact that he is prohibited from going to a place he is helping to build.
“The way they ban us, we should ban them,” he said.
At Nassar Stone in Al Khader near Bethlehem, between 12 and 14 blocks weighing 2.9 tons each arrive at the factory from West Bank quarries every day, where they are cut into sheets with diamond-coated Italian-made blades, and then cleaned and finished with a clear resin before being sliced into tiles and shipped to customers.
Founded in 1984, Nassar Stone was one of the first companies to professionalise the stone industry in the West Bank, bringing modern technology and the concept of quality control to the industry.
Its owner, Nassar Nassar, even claims he invented the term “Jerusalem stone” to apply to the white, pink and yellow limestone found in the Jerusalem and West Bank area.
At first, Nassar Stone sold mostly to Israelis and Palestinians, but it later reduced its local market sales to 20 per cent when it began a lucrative business overseas. The airport in San Diego, California is made with Nassar Stone as is the mosque area of the Doha international airport.
Marked with a “made in Palestine” stamp, Nassar Stone carries with it the pride of the occupied territory, but also the tribulations of doing business there. It took two years for the company to receive Israeli permission to open a quarry in Area C of the West Bank, where Israelis control security.
But its blocks of stone — churned into tiles and sent overseas — now show Palestine, and Jerusalem, to the outside world.
“The three main religions all love Jerusalem, and knowing this comes from Jerusalem is a contributing factor of why they love it so much,” said Mr Nassar.