West Bank Becomes Waste Land
By Mel Frykberg*
Palestinian territories fast becoming a wasteland
RAMALLAH, May 15 (IPS/IFEJ) - Israel has found a cheap and easy way to get rid of its waste, much of it hazardous: dump it into the West Bank. A few Palestinians can be bought, the rest are in no position to complain.
"Israel has been dumping waste, including hazardous and toxic waste, into the West Bank for years as a cheaper and easier alternative to processing it properly in Israel at appropriate hazardous waste management sites," Palestinian Environmental Authority (PEA) deputy director Jamil Mtoor told IPS.
Shuqbah, a village of 5,000, lies near the border of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, not far from Ramallah. Israeli companies have been using land owned by a Palestinian middleman in the village to dump tonnes of garbage for as little as 30 dollars per tonne, significantly cheaper than dumping it at Israeli waste sites.
"For several years Israeli companies have been dumping solid and hazardous waste there," Mtoor told IPS. "The subsequent burning of toxic waste including items such as x-ray films releases carcinogens into the environment, and this has affected the population, with many people developing asthma and related illnesses."
The Israelis earlier buried the carcasses of thousands of chickens infected with the avian flu virus near Nablus in the northern West Bank, said Mtoor. The PEA also uncovered 500 barrels of insecticide in Hebron in the southern West Bank. Again, a Palestinian middleman had been paid off to accept the barrels on his property.
While the PA has arrested the individuals involved, and is taking legal action against a number of them, it is difficult to bring Palestinians cooperating with Israeli dumping companies to book.
"The Israelis are taking advantage of extremely poor individuals with large families to support and with limited sources of income, in a society with high rates of unemployment," said Mtoor.
Israel exerts complete control over more than 40 percent of the West Bank. The territory is divided into Areas A, B and C. Only Area A falls under PA control. Area B falls under Israeli and limited Palestinian jurisdiction, while Area C is controlled by Israel.
"Many of the Palestinian middlemen are protected by the Israelis. If we wish to pursue them we have to obtain the requisite Israeli permits to enter Areas B and C, and these are often refused or take a long time to get," says Mtoor.
"Furthermore, it is hard to monitor the numerous dumping sites used by Israel because the dumping is done both overtly and covertly, sometimes during the night. The locations used vary, and the Israelis cover up the sites afterwards."
Israel's illegal settlements regularly dump garbage and discharge wastewater into West Bank rivers and streams.
The Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ) says in a report that "wastewater from the settlements is not restricted to domestic effluent but includes pesticides, asbestos, batteries, cement and aluminium - which contain carcinogenic and hazardous compounds."
As Israel expropriates approximately 87 percent of the West Bank's underground aquifer, with 2.5 million Palestinians surviving on the remainder, this poses a threat to the health both of Israelis and Palestinians.
"Israeli settlers consume up to 200 litres of water daily per individual while Palestinians in the West Bank survive on 30-60 litres per individual daily," Mtoor told IPS.
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environment group, released an investigative report several years ago called 'A Seeping Time Bomb, Pollution of the Mountain Aquifer by Solid Waste'.
According to FoEME's report, unsustainable disposal of solid waste has resulted in the percolation of toxic substances including chloride, arsenic and heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead into the groundwater.
"The threat to the drinking water remains to this day," FoEME spokeswoman Miri Epstein told IPS.
Israeli companies producing potentially hazardous products have relocated from within the Green Line to the Palestinian territories to avoid the strict environmental laws that control operations within Israel.
Israeli pesticides company Geshuri was forced to close operations in Kfar Sava in Israel in 1985, and relocated to Tulkarem in the northern West Bank. This followed a court order on a petition by Israeli residents who blamed the company for an increase in pollution-related health issues.
The international community and NGOs have tried to improve the situation. The German government has built a new solid waste disposal project near Ramallah, while the World Bank and the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, built a solid waste landfill facility near Jenin in the northern West Bank.
"We have the sympathy of the international community but the situation will not be resolved until there is a political resolution to the protracted Israeli- Palestinian conflict," said Mtoor.
The joint Israeli Palestinian Environmental Experts Committee, established under the Oslo Accords, has not met since 1999, and so any coordination on solid waste is ad hoc.
Gaza now faces environmental disaster following Israel's devastating war on the coastal territory earlier this year which killed 1,400 Palestinians, most of them civilian, and wounded nearly 5,000.
"The environmental situation in the Gaza Strip is extremely serious and it is our priority to investigate the environmental challenges and rehabilitation priorities," Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) told IPS.
Steiner concluded a tour of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank recently during which he met with Palestinian officials and UN staff to assess the situation in both Palestinian enclaves – the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
UNEP will be sending a team of eight experts to Gaza this month to examine, amongst other things, the environmental fallout of Israel's use of illegal weapons such as white phosphorous.
The team comprises specialists in water and wastewater management, asbestos and hazardous waste monitoring, coastal and marine environmental assessment, and in institutional and economic evaluation.
"The situation prior to the war was already serious due to Gaza's inadequate infrastructure and the inability to repair waste and water treatment plants," Achim told IPS. And now it is far worse.
Israel's embargo has blocked supplies of construction material needed to repair Gaza's decimated infrastructure, and of sufficient quantities of fuel needed to run water and waste treatment plants.
"Hazardous waste and hospital waste is lying untreated. Untreated sewage has been pumped out to sea and permeated Gaza's underground water and drinking supplies, creating a potential health threat," said Steiner.
The Israeli military has more than 600 checkpoints and roadblocks situated throughout the West Bank, severely impacting movement there, and making it hard for wastewater tankers to reach many villages and towns.
"Due to the extensive closures and roadblocks in the West Bank, Palestinians don't have sufficient access to waste sites or the ability to treat waste properly," Steiner told IPS.
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS - Inter Press Service, and IFEJ -- the International Federation of Environmental Journalists). (END/2009)