Andrew Ross


On his book Stone Men: The Palestinians Who Built Israel

Cover Interview of October 22, 2019

In a nutshell

Ostensibly, Stone Men is about the lives and labors of Palestinian stonemasons. These are men who work in the West Bank stone industry—in quarries, workshops, and factories—and have a rich and venerable history behind their craft. Palestinian masons have been sought out for centuries for their superior artisanal skills. For the book, I interviewed them at every point in the production and supply chain, along with the construction workers who follow the journey of the stone across the Green Line and onto building sites in Israel or in the West Bank settlements.

The Central Highlands of the West Bank harbor some of the best quality limestone deposits in the world, and they are the one natural resource that Palestinians still have under their control. Sadly, most of the quarried stone is used to build out Israel, the state of their occupier, and its spreading archipelago of settlements in the West Bank. Also, to some degree, Palestinians suffer from the same “resource curse” as oil-rich countries. The extraction of the stone (sometimes known as “white oil”) is only lightly regulated and so strip-mining ravages the environment and sickens the workforce.

The Israeli construction industry is heavily reliant on Palestinian labor and on the West Bank stone industry. I felt that my reporting (I write in a style I call “scholarly reporting”) might be a good way to tell the story about the colonial nature of this economic interdependency between Palestinians and Israelis, while documenting the daily routines of the workforce. Of course, it’s a very asymmetrical relationship. For example, the Israeli authorities have finessed a policy of economic pacification to discipline the workforce—we will issue work permits in return for your acceptance of the status quo, but if you, or any family member, steps out of line, or gets arrested, the permits will be withdrawn. Because Palestinian development has stagnated under the 52-year occupation, there are few alternatives on the West Bank that pay more than a starvation wage, so it’s what I call a compulsory workforce that crosses the Green Line every day.

So, too the Israeli economy benefits at all levels from this arrangement—workers return to the West Bank every night, posing no social burden on the Israeli state, and they spend their pay on Israeli goods at Israeli prices in their hometowns. That’s a win-win for Israel. But the occupation is also good for profit-takers on the Palestinian side. There are the crony, or comprador, capitalists around the Palestinian Authority, then there are the stone industry owners themselves, who constitute a smaller petty-bourgeois economy, and, last but not least, the middlemen subcontractors who take a hefty cut from the labor supply chain.