Human Rights Group Demands a Freeze on West Bank Quarries

Three-quarters of the rock and gravel quarried in the West Bank are transferred out of Palestinian territory and used by Israelis, a human rights group said Monday, charging Israel's government with violating international law.

The Yesh Din group said the mining exploits a vital nonrenewable resource that could serve a future Palestinian state, and asked Israel's Supreme Court to stop it.

The mining activities are "illegal and executed though brutal economic exploitation of occupied territory for the economic needs of the State of Israel, the occupying power," according to the court appeal.

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Israel, which took over the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war, denies any violations. The West Bank is home to some 2.4 million Palestinians and nearly 300,000 Israeli settlers.

Citing a military document, the Israeli human rights group said 9 million of the 12 million tons of gravel removed from West Bank quarries every year are sold in Israel. The appeal demands that Israel stop granting West Bank concessions to Israeli companies and not renew existing licenses.

The military began issuing West Bank quarry permits to Israeli and international companies in the 1970s, but Israeli courts have never examined the permits' legality, said Shlomy Zachary, one of the lawyers behind the petition.

International law dictates that an occupying power must manage resources in occupied territory without damaging them, he said.

But he said mining operations are "an irreparable situation since most of the fruits of the land are being taken and will never be able to be returned."

Historically, Israel has claimed that international law over occupation does not apply in the West Bank, because its legal status has never been determined. In recent years, however, Israeli doves and even some hawkish leaders have come around to supporting an Israeli withdrawal from most of the West Bank, and many favor creation of a Palestinian state there.

Military spokesman Miki Galin said the approval procedures for quarries are in line with "the relevant directives of international law" and Israel's interim accords with the Palestinians.

"At this time, the Civil Administration is carrying out staff work to evaluate the up-to-date policy regarding the operation of the quarries," he said.

Also Monday, a new poll said support for the Islamic militant group Hamas is growing and support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is slipping. The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, which conducted the poll, attributed the shift to Israel's three-week offensive in Gaza, which sought to stop Hamas rocket fire on Israeli towns. Nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed, according to Palestinian figures, and many saw Abbas as ineffective in stopping the violence.

The poll shows a virtual tie between Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh and Abbas. Haniyeh would get 47 percent and Abbas 45 percent if presidential elections were held now, the poll said, in results within the three-percentage-point margin of error.

Three months ago, Abbas would have beat Haniyeh by 10 points, the center said.

During the same period, Hamas' popularity climbed five points to 33 percent, while the popularity of Abbas' Fatah movement dropped two points to 40 percent, the poll found.

The poll was conducted between March 5 and 7 among 1,270 adults in the West Bank and Gaza. It has a margin of error of three percentage points.

Relations between Fatah and Hamas collapsed when Hamas seized the Gaza Strip in a brief but bloody civil war in June 2007.

Donor countries and agencies are considering how to rebuild Gaza and deal with the humanitarian needs of its 1.4 million residents, a task most countries want to accomplish without empowering Hamas.

On Monday, part of an aid caravan headed by activist British lawmaker George Galloway entered Gaza from Egypt.

About 50 British and Scottish volunteers and 100 vehicles carrying food, clothing and medicine passed through Egypt's Rafah border crossing, a Hamas border official said.

Other aid, including electrical generators and a fire engine, would enter Israel, where the British delegation hoped to get it into Gaza through coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the official said.

Galloway called the aid "a drop in the ocean," but said the trip was to send a message that "the lifeline from Britain to Gaza is in."

Israel allows daily convoys of aid into Gaza and denies that there are shortages of food, fuel or medicine there.

Also Monday, the Israeli military imposed a three-day closure on the West Bank, banning most Palestinians from entering Israel during the Jewish festival of Purim. The closure will end at midnight Wednesday.

In the past, several deadly Palestinian bombings targeted Israelis during Purim, which Jews celebrate with costume parties and colorful parades.

In 1994, a Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians at a disputed holy site in the West Bank city of Hebron during the holiday.