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Palestinians' stones cut both ways

The West Bank has a prosperous stonecutting industry, but much of its

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The welcome mat to this village of 9,000 is the mounds of stones that litter the road to town like dingy snowdrifts.

Inside, Beit Fajjar tells its story in the sight of men's faces whitened with a chalky film, in the sounds of metal slicing stone, and in the sense of an invisible, airborne powder that tickles the nose and dries the throat.

These stones make up one of the most lucrative products the emerging Palestinian market has to offer. And no place in the West Bank is as well-known for its variety and abundance of stonecutters as is Beit Fajjar.

In an economy that desperately needs to improve its productivity as the Palestinians move closer to declaring their own state this year, the annual average output per worker in the stone industry stands at about $40,000, higher than in any other sector. But the product that Palestinians in this village near Bethlehem are proudest of is also their own worst enemy: They have benefited greatly from Israel's occupation of the West Bank, particularly in the past 15 years, when many of their stones helped build the Israeli settlements that Palestinians so vehemently oppose.

Now, as Palestinians move to "final status" negotiations with Israelis - who began another round of talks with Syrians yesterday - some feel uneasy about a business dynamic that seems to have both harmed and helped their national aspirations.

Somewhere along the line, no one seems to know precisely when, Beit Fajjar carved out a niche in stonecutting. Aging workers here tell stories of their grandfathers transporting stones from the quarries around Bethlehem and Hebron to Beit Fajjar on camelback. After the 1993 peace accords, many newcomers were drawn to the business by expectations of a building boom to help house Palestinian returnees and refugees. But the population influx has been much milder than that, driving prices lower.


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