Charcoal West Bank
Charcoal kilns in the northern West Bank. Some 400 kilns operate in the West Bank, producing 1,600 tons of charcoal a month and causing air pollution. Photo by Alon Ron
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"This pollution is ruining our lives and hurting my son's health," said Udi Razamovitz of Kibbutz Metzer. "I'm considering leaving the kibbutz altogether."

The kibbutz is frequently enveloped in a cloud of thick smoke produced by dozens of Palestinian charcoal kilns across the Green Line. Residents of Israeli communities south of Wadi Ara have been battling the charcoal pollution for years.

According to Israel's Civil Administration in the West Bank, some 400 kilns operate east of Mitzpeh Ilan and Harish, producing 1,600 tons of charcoal every month and supplying most of Israel's market for barbecue charcoal. Israel is also the source of 90 percent of the kilns' raw material, mostly from farmers who uproot old avocado or citrus orchards. Production in the kilns increases massively ahead of Independence Day, when barbecues are a popular pastime.

Air quality tests conducted by officials of the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Sharon-Carmel municipal environmental corporation found that pollution from the kilns spreads all the way to Hadera. Another test run by the ministry some months ago found high concentrations of pollutant particles that can penetrate the body's airways, as well as a high number of carcinogenics. Adding to the kilns' pollution are several illegal landfills where trash is frequently burned.

"There's an insufferable smell of smoke here, especially at night," Razamovitz said this week. "It hurts the children, including my son. He was away from the kibbutz for a week and as soon as he got back here, he had an asthma attack. I got up one morning at half past four to go to work, and the entire kibbutz reeked of smoke."

He said that sometimes the smoke leaves off for a day when the wind changes, but it always comes back. "We go to sleep with closed windows because of the smoke, but it still gets into the house," he said. "We can't leave laundry outside because it absorbs the smell."

Area residents say they are well aware that the charcoal industry is a major source of income for their Palestinian neighbors, which is why they focus their demands on equipping the kilns with filters to reduce the pollution. Some residents told Haaretz the Palestinians suffer from the smoke worse than Israeli communities do, because they are much closer to the kilns.

But despite repeated promises, residents said, the Civil Administration has yet to bring about any real change in the situation.

As most of the kilns are in parts of the West Bank designated Area C, meaning full Israeli military and civil control, the Civil Administration could relatively easily shut them down. But since the administration is now trying to help the Palestinian economy grow, it has little interest in hurting such a major source of income.

Nevertheless, some 19 demolition orders were issued for kilns recently, and Civil Administration officials said that if negotiations fail, they will have to enforce the orders. But even if that happened, they noted, the owners could simply move them a few kilometers away to Area B, which is under Palestinian civil control and thus beyond the administration's reach. And the smoke would still drift across the Green Line.

Meanwhile, the administration is talking with the governor of the Palestinian Authority's Jenin District, and European environmental groups have taken up the issue with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's office. The Civil Administration is also trying to promote filters for the kilns, and one is currently being tested. But it is unclear whether buying filters would be economically viable for the kilns.