Con Men, Security Forces Throw W. Bank Stone Trade Into Shambles

Palestinian stoneworkers and Israeli traders are joining hands against swindlers, many of them settlers, who sell fictious permits to expedite the passage of stone products from Palestinian workshops in the West Bank into Israel. Trucks with waybills bearing the names of Israeli factories can pass through crossing points more cheaply and easily, at all hours of the day or night, without having to unload and reload the goods at the crossing.

Many undergo no security checks, while for the others it is cursory. Trucks with Palestinian shipping documents, however, must use "back-to-back" transfer, in which goods are unloaded from a Palestinian truck and reloaded onto an Israeli truck, and passage is restricted to a few hours per day.

Manufacturers and merchants in the stone industry also complain that the method damages the cargo, which can lose some 20 percent of its value.

According to a recent joint letter sent by the Palestinian Union of Stone and Marble Industry and the Israeli Association of Stone Processors to Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai and the Head of the Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, one-time fictious waybills are sold to Palestinian producers for NIS 1,200. (The average value of a single truckload is $15,000). The professional associations estimate that the issuers make about NIS 250,000 a month from the fake documents.

Stone manufacturer Nassar Nassar, who is considered one of the largest figures in the industry worldwise - Nassar Group owns factories in Bethlehem, Jordan and Oman - told Haaretz that Israeli contractors told him that Israeli con men have offered them steady supplies of stone from Palestinian facilities in exchange for commission fees.

He said that those who reject the offer to pay what amounts to protection money see their supplies of stone become inconsistent, while those who make the payments enjoy a regular supply. Nassar claims some of the payments are done under the noses of border crossing employees.

Industry figures say that the back-to-back method and the payment of protection money have dealt a fatal blow to a field that employs about 30,000 people. Nassar and his colleagues recently asked for help from U.S. security personnel operating in the West Bank, as well as Mideast Quartet coordinator Tony Blair.

The latter visited Nassar's factory and the border crossings to study the problem, which has led to a rise in the prices of stone products and a decline in profits. Nassar said that a number of factories have had to close as a result, and that other manufacturers face bankruptcy.

ASP member Jacob Mordoch, one of the country's leading stone exporters, confirmed the damage to goods - and thus to the entire industry - caused by the back-to-back method and by the fictitious waybills.

Nassar and Mordoch emphasized that over the years their industry had become an exemplar of economic cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. Both noted that in decades of extensive commerce in the field there had never been a security incident as a result of the passage of stone and stone products from the West Bank to Israel.

The heads of the two organizations has announced that if Israel does not end its preferential treatment of the Israeli stone industry over its Palestinian counterpart they will petition the High Court of Justice on the issue.

This week the Civil Administration notified the groups' attorney, who sent the joint letter, that even though non-Israeli goods transported from the West Bank into Israel must use the back-to-back method, "An exception will be made for 75 trucks (per day) carrying stone and granite from Nassar's factory through the tunnel crossing between 11 A.M. and 5 P.M."

Nassar dismissed what he called an attempt to "buy him off" with the offer to let through 75 trucks a day.

If there is no security problem with letting in 75 trucks, then why do the other more than 650 trucks bringing stone from the West Bank to Israel have to go back-to-back, and are barred from using the terminal between 5 P.M. and 7 A.M. the following morning?

Haaretz received no reply to that question.

For various reasons, most of them having to do with environmental preservation, in the 1970s Israel encouraged entrepreneurs in the territories to develop the stone and stone product industry, which eventually became a leading field that continued to thrive even during periods of military confrontation. Even during the intifada trucks continued to bring in goods from the West Bank to Israel. The industry is estimated to be worth around NIS 2 billion to NIS 3 billion annually.

About 18 months ago Israeli security authorities decided to switch to the back-to-back method at the Tarqumiya crossing and to bar Palestinians from the tunnels crossing, forcing trucks to line up for hours, sometimes overnight, increasing costs significantly and reducing overall shipping capacity.

"The initial information received from Haaretz will be examined thoroughly and if found reliable will be given to law enforcement authorities," the Defense Ministry said.

The spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said the back-to-back method is a way to permit economic activity in the West Bank while protecting Jerusalem's security.

"The prime minister has acted since his election, at every opportunity, to promote economic peace ... the security threats and challenges facing Jerusalem do not permit allowing the passage of Palestinian trucks directly into city centers, including Jerusalem, or on main roads in Israel," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.