Charcoal burning - Moti Milrod - Sept. 30, 2010
A Palestinian working in the charcoal industry in the northern West Bank. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Smoke from the Palestinian charcoal industry in the northern West Bank, which has moved west of the separation fence in recent years, has become a pollution problem in Jewish communities west of the Green Line. But there may be a ray of light through the fumes: a local Palestinian invention to modernize the process - if the locals can be won over.

Menashe Regional Council head Ilan Sadeh, from Kibbutz Ma'anit, says: "Back in the 1950s a bunch of us would go down there with bulldozers and get rid of the logs." But these days he spends his energy knocking on doors at the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Civil Administration, seeking a solution that will allow the residents of his regional council to breath cleaner air, and soldiers on patrol not to need gas masks.

Charcoal is easy to make: Prunings are brought in mainly from Israel and piled in a pyramid shape, covered with straw and set alight, burning for 21 days until charcoal is created. The process leaves the village of Yabed permanently overhung with smoke. The product is cheap, at NIS 4 a kilogram.

Since the separation fence went up three years ago, the charcoal industry has migrated westward from the villages to the open areas west of the fence, saving manufacturers the punishment of having the prunings checked going into the West Bank, and the charcoal on the way out.

The result: a sharp rise in pollution, particularly in the community of Mitzpeh Ilan, west of the Green Line.

The smoke can cause immediate reactions, ranging from minor eye and lung irritation to heart attack. It also contains carcinogens. The excessive smoke levels have led the Central Command to order soldiers patrolling the area to wear gas masks.

But the Civil Administration is wary of taking the army's advice to close down the smokers: Although the industry operates without permits, shuttering it will mean hundreds of unemployed, fertile ground for terrorism.

However, Dr. Walid al-Basha of Jenin, who has just returned from seven years studying engineering in Japan, has designed a concrete smoker with a tin roof into which the logs are placed, lit from below, and from which all the gases are funneled out one pipe. It shortens production time and allows the smoke output to be properly monitored.

The Civil Administration and Palestinian Authority donor nations are funding al-Basha's project: One of his smokers has been built in Yabed so people can see it work. Meanwhile, more persuasion has come in the form of 19 demolition orders recently issued to new charcoal smokers in the Dotan area. But the village's charcoal producers say the new system reduces the weight of the coal by 30 percent, denting their income.

The commander of the Jenin liaison office with the Palestinian Authority, Lt. Col. Adel Masalha, has been making the rounds of the illegal facilities to persuade them to use the new system. One of the workers, Mohammad Mazbabdeh, covered in soot, complained that they were destroying his livelihood. "I told him that I am the son of a farmer. We used to make olive oil in a press like they did 2,000 years ago; now we use machines from Italy," Masalha told him.