Stone Men: The Palestinians who built Israel

Tony Richardson reviews this book by Andrew Ross, Verso Books, 2021

 

This is the new paperback version of the book first published in 2019. It’s a tremendous book because it is all about the Palestinian stone workers, who have plied their trade for centuries, if not Millennia. Palestine was famous for its stone, of all colours and types, and the workers who worked on it.

He really starts with the turn of the 20th century and the development of Tel Aviv. The Zionist settlers wanted to get away from Palestinian workers, so when Tel Aviv was first being built, they tried to get only Jewish workers, this was totally unsuccessful, because not only were the Palestinians better, but cheaper. They tried to build in just concrete, but people preferred stone buildings.

The great strength of this book is that he presents things from the viewpoint of the workers, using memoirs or interviews with old building workers. He follows this through from the Nakba, the same group that attacked Deir Yassin, attacked Palestinians in Jaffa, through to today when Histradut the Israeli TU had the ‘Boycott Arab labour’ policy.

But even Israeli employers wanted cheaper, more skilled Arab workers, and even though Histradut subsidised Jewish workers, in the building trade this was not fully successful. The Zionists set up a monopoly Nesher Cement, to try to move away from stone. But even Jewish families preferred the old stone.

So from the beginning, Ross shows how Palestinians built Israel, he even argues that this should be part of any compensation, in any one-state solution. He shows throughout the hypocrisy of denying any validity to Palestinians and then relying on them. At the same time as Palestinians are having their houses demolished, they are building Israeli houses, including in the settlements. It is a great advantage that he has knowledge and love of stone as a building material. He went to workers in Israel and in the West Bank, and his book is based on these discussions.

Some of the most moving is with those that are building the wall that becomes their prison. He also goes to the Palestinian quarries, where the conditions are horrible, and these quarries compete with each other. Stone is now the major export of Palestine. Farmers have been forced off the land, and have to work in them to feed their families.

Through this whole story Ross provides a brilliant history of Palestine, he is providing information about it in a fresh way.  Most importantly it shows the struggle of the workers. Nowadays they have contempt for the Palestinian Authority (PA) and give no support for the two-state solution. Similarly, the official Palestinian unions are shown to be useless. This is the only book I have read showing the development, in struggle, of the new independent unions.  He even has interviews with some of their leaders.

Some of the best parts of the book are about the ‘new Palestinian city’ Rawabi, on the West Bank. It is being built by Bashar Masri, a Palestinian businessman, with two-thirds of the investment from Qatari investors. Through the process of dealing with this, he shows how Palestinian capitalists have carved up the West Bank. Masri’s uncle, Munib, a tycoon, formed a conglomerate of 35 companies all over the West Bank and Gaza. They formed joint profit-sharing enterprises with the PA. Because everything required permission from the Israelis, there was a third ‘partner’ to these enterprises.

Many Palestinian capitalists invested in the industrial zones of the settlements. All of this came after Arafat declared the freezing of the class struggle, and had written into the Basic Law that Palestine would have a free market economy. So for Rawabi, the land was appropriated at low rates by the PA using the law of Eminent Domain. Cement and other raw materials were supplied by Israeli companies, Palestinian stone was also used. The design was discussed with the architect who designed the notorious Israeli settlement of Modi’in.

As far as the workers are concerned, and there are many, the wages were really low, less than they could earn in Israel, but with less hassle. Again the great thing is that he interviews Masri, but more importantly, he interviews the workers on the site, and you can see the nature of the development through their eyes.

They of course are priced out of buying any of the flats, which are geared to the middle class of Ramallah and ex-pats, who will be like the Israelis in the settlements, using them as holiday homes.

Throughout this book, Ross shows Palestine through the eyes of the stone workers. He contextualises boycott and divestment in its concrete form and the future of the struggle for Palestine in a way other sources do not. He spent 3 years interviewing Palestinian workers and has produced a really valuable book, which will help anybody understand the situation that Palestine is in.

Having read a lot of books on Palestine, and stayed in a village on the site of Rawabi, I still learnt a lot from this book, so it is highly recommended.


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