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The Civil Administration is considering allowing the Palestinians to open quarries in Area C. It has long refused such requests to quarry in this huge area, which encompasses about 60 percent of the West Bank and is under Israeli administrative and security control.

This news comes from Israelis familiar with the quarrying scene in the West Bank and was confirmed to Haaretz by geologist and quarry planner Shimon Giller, who is involved in submitting two Palestinian requests for a quarrying and mining permit in Area C. It would take at least a year and a half until a Palestinian quarry could operate according to the strict Israeli standard.

Giller says the Civil Administration is considering to grant new permits to the Palestinians following a February 2009 petition to the High Court of Justice by Yesh Din (Volunteers For Human Rights) to stop Israelis quarrying in the West Bank. Yesh Din argues Israeli quarrying involves removing natural resources from a conquered area to satisfy the needs of the occupier and violates international law and could, in certain cases, "be defined as pillage."

The Israeli owners of eight West Bank quarries (who are the respondents alongside the CA and the area commander of the Israel Defense Forces) do not conceal their concern. The petition aside, about half a year ago the Palestinian Authority ordered a boycott of products from the settlements.

The Ramallah government ruled by law that offenders could be punished, including contractors who buy gravel and asphalt from Israeli-owned West Bank quarries. Building materials are confiscated and heavy fines are imposed on those who are caught.

"Buy from quarries in Israel," say contractors, quoting the Palestinian officials to whom they complained. However, this solution raises the cost of transportation and that of the final product and requires considerable maneuvering: Israel forbids its quarries in Israel proper to sell directly to a Palestinian contractor.

Several Palestinian contractors, who prefer anonymity, say construction and the paving of roads are being harmed. They mention a road in the Jericho area that was financed by USAID, which has high standards. The part that was paved with "Palestinian" gravel and asphalt was judged defective, and the contractor had to peel back 1.5 km. and repave it. The road section paved with "Israeli" raw materials continues to sparkle.

One contractor complained he was forced to demolish several buildings after defects were discovered due to the "Palestinian" raw materials. This costs money and then damages contractors' professional reputations and hurts their chances of getting new contracts, especially for projects funded by Europe, Japan and the United States. The PA, they say, hastened to enforce a political decision ("which we support wholeheartedly," they swear) before guaranteeing the quality of the alternative product.

There's a big price difference in favor of the Israeli product, they say. Israeli asphalt costs NIS 160-NIS 200 a ton; a "Palestinian" ton costs NIS 260. The stone in the Israeli quarries is harder and requires less liquid bitumen for asphalt and the cement used in concrete. In addition, explosives are forbidden for Palestinians; stone must be crushed, which ups the cost even more. So contractors pave fewer kilometers of road for every dollar donors budget for the project - or give up their profits.

The contractors' complaints suggest there is a head-on collision between two PA aspirations, whose implementation falls under the Ministry of National Economy in Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government: One is to phase out completely - this year - all settlement products on the Palestinian market. The second is to increase Palestinian production and improve its quality.

Surprisingly, senior officials in the PA's National Economy Ministry didn't know about Yesh Din's year-old petition. Its text confirms the Palestinians' basic assumption: Israel is not giving up Area C, even in return for a peace agreement, out of clear economic interests and is cloaking the refusal with excuses based on security and religion. The petition mentions a document written for Israel's Interior Ministry in advance of a January 2008 discussion of future master plans. The authors (Lerman Architects and Town Planners and Aviv Engineering Management and Information Systems) analyze the mining reserves for the raw materials for construction and road paving in Israel. This document says the Civil Administration estimates that Israeli quarries in Area C produce 12 million tons of gravel annually. About 9 million tons (74 percent) are sold in Israel and the rest goes on the local market - to the settlements and the Palestinians.

Giller says quarries in Israel produce on average 35-38 million tons of gravel annually. The document's authors estimate that the reserves (active quarries and future plans) on the West Bank can produce another 360 million tons, which will suffice for 30 years, "assuming that no political developments should change the Area C boundaries." If there are changes in the arrangements with the Palestinians, warns the document, "it is feared that the quantities of gravel might diminish."

Giller, as a geologist, confirms the claims of the Palestinian contractors and the fears of the document's authors. The rocks that are suitable for producing gravel are the oldest and hardest ones, about 60 million years old. They come from formations found on the central mountain range, and the West Bank takes up most of it. That means, says Giller, that in the center of the Land of Israel, the aggregate (gravel) quarries that meet the high Israeli standard must mostly be in Judea and Samaria. Because the cost of transporting aggregate and asphalt is high relative to that of producing the product, it's important to cut the distance between quarry and asphalt plant and between the latter and the construction site. So quarries in the Galilee and the Negev, even if geologically and environmentally feasible, will greatly increase raw material and finished product costs - and that will affect the entire Israeli economy.

On the central mountain range rocks differ. Giller says that "traditionally, Palestinian industry works on minimizing production cost. The quarry owners don't want to work with hard stone, which wears down the machines. All the Palestinian quarries, except for one in the Hebron area, work with softer limestone." Before 1967,the softer limestone was used in Israel, too, but the standard for building materials here was upgraded in the 1980s and 1990s.

Gravel produced from high-quality "Israeli" stone is essential for use in paving roads, structures such as bridges, building skeletons, marine surfaces and other special structures, airports, railways and tank bases. Stone of a lower quality can be used to prepare cinder blocks and road foundations. If the petition of Yesh Din is accepted, predicts Giller, "the paving of high-quality roads in the PA will end."

Officials at the PA's Ministry of National Economy reject the arguments about the poorer quality of the Palestinian product. They confirm that following complaints from contractors (including charges of unfair competition from Palestinian quarries that have asphalt factories) a special committee was formed that has fixed a maximum asphalt price of NIS 250 a ton and guarantees its quality.

A properly controlled addition of bitumen, said an expert engineer in the ministry, compensates for the soft stone and yields a good-quality product.

Senior ministry officials say the standard has long existed but during the intifada years, due to draconian limitations on movement, it was hard to enforce. The huge price difference, they believe, stems from a deliberate Israeli intention to flood the Palestinian market with cheap merchandise (not always as high a quality, they say, as Israelis claim) to prevent Palestinian development. And that is also why Palestinian requests for modern quarries in Area C are not met.

Giller believes that permits were not granted because of the strict standard and the requirement of its enforcement, but one can reasonably assume there will be Palestinians who can meet it. A spokesman for the coordinator of activities in the territories said that in the past 10 years, one Palestinian quarry and one Israeli quarry were built in Area C. He did not answer the question as to whether there really is a change in the trend and whether Palestinian requests for new quarries in Area C will be met.

The High Court did not meet Yesh Din's request for an interim injunction to freeze the activity of the eight Israeli West Bank quarries. The state is supposed to give its reply to the court by the middle of April.

In effect, says Giller, the Civil Administration won't grant permits to new Israeli quarries or for expanding existing ones and is renewing quarry permits for 2010 only for areas that had permits in 2009. (The quarrying is carried out in a limited area of the master plan, so as not to pay high municipal property taxes on the entire area).

Meanwhile, output has not declined, says Giller, and Palestinian buyers have not yet stopped buying Israeli products. Palestinian contractors and Israeli quarry owners find themselves in an unofficial coalition of "deal-makers" to get around the prohibitions and restrictions. But neither the contractors nor the quarry owners will be able to continue to outsmart the prohibitions forever.

At one of the Israeli-owned West Bank quarries someone put forth a solution that could please the unhappy Palestinian contractors and resolve the threatened shortage in building materials in Israel. All the quarries will immediately be transferred to PA ownership. The quarry managers (some have relations with Palestinian buyers and workers that could serve as an advertisement for coexistence) will remain in their jobs and will personally stop violating international law. Israel will buy all the building material it needs without risking a conviction for looting.

All those present smiled broadly at the suggestion's wild imagination. Giller thinks that with the right political and security conditions, the Israeli market will be able to purchase the Palestinian aggregate if it meets the Israeli standard.