On May 4, the El Bireh Municipality could find that its waste disposal site has been shut down by the Israel Defense Forces and the Civil Administration. The motive for the move, the Civil Administration explains, is purely ecological, noting that an officer from the administration's headquarters on environmental matters already had informed the municipality of the plan some four months ago.
Are we dealing here with a routine dispute between a local authority with immediate considerations - trash building up in the streets and irate residents - and a higher authority, whose job it is to also consider the greater good and the long-term benefits for the environment? Or, is it perhaps reflective of a ruler-subject relationship?
In response to questions from Haaretz, the Civil Administration argues that the site in question is "illegal." But the El Bireh Municipality has been using it since 1979, under an agreement with the owners of the land. It started during the period of the Israeli military government, and the IDF, the supreme authority on the ground, didn't prevent use of the site then, or since - not even when the Civil Administration took over or when an Israeli officer was appointed mayor of the city in the mid-1980s.
With the establishment of the Palestinian Authority, the waste disposal site, east of El Bireh, remained in Area C - that is, under Israeli administrative and security control. The Civil Administration has had some 20 years in which to flex its muscles and shut down the "illegal" site. Why now has it suddenly remembered to do so?
In December 2000, the site was closed to El Bireh, with security considerations cited as the reason for the move. Left with no alternative, El Bireh began using neighboring Ramallah's waste disposal site, which is located in the city's industrial area, near a residential neighborhood - another serious environmental hazard. In October 2002, the Ramallah Municipality announced that it could no longer deal with the mountains of surplus waste. During all this time, the settlements in the area and the IDF made use of the El Bireh dump.
The El Bireh Municipality then decided to petition the High Court of Justice and demand the right to use the site. In return for the municipality retracting its petition, the Israel authorities were kind enough to open it up for use by the Palestinians for a period of three months. It was then that the Israeli authorities also raised the ecological argument as their principal reason for demanding the site's closure.
The El Bireh Municipality is aware of the environmental damage and is very keen to establish a safe and modern permanent site. But how come the Israeli authorities didn't raise the ecological argument over the past two years, when the site was being used by Israelis only?
This is one of the reasons why El Bireh municipal officials suspect that the demand to immediately shut down the site doesn't stem from purely ecological concerns, and that the next step could be expropriating the land. Some two years ago, the Israeli authorities took control of a dirt road (adjacent to the site) that links the settlements of Psagot and Beit El and runs across private Palestinian land - without employing the standard expropriation and occupation procedures.
The Civil Administration refused to comment on this charge.
In March, the sides agreed that the Palestinians would be responsible - financially and logistically - for covering up the waste with dirt (10 truckloads a day). The El Bireh Municipality, the Civil Administration says, failed to uphold its part of the deal.
The site is guarded by two soldiers, who open the locked gates for a few hours a day to allow the Palestinian trucks in. For Israelis, the site is open 24 hours a day. The El Bireh Municipality argues that not only is the site open to the Palestinians for too few hours a day, there have been many occasions when the soldiers, for no apparent reason, have failed to open the site on time. The municipality produces letters of complaint that were faxed to those responsible for the matter at the Civil Administration - that's why El Bireh couldn't keep its part of the deal, it says.
Were the opening hours reduced so much merely by chance, municipality officials wonder; or was it done so that it could be argued that the municipality wasn't playing its part?
The Civil Administration argues that it was agreed that in the interim, the El Bireh Municipality would begin using the Abu Dis garbage dump. The municipality denies any such agreement: The cost of transporting the waste to Abu Dis would take a large, unreasonable bite out of the municipality's budget, which is already dwindling due to the ongoing closure on the town and the general economic crisis. Furthermore, the municipality fears that the trip to distant Abu Dis would be hampered by constant hold-ups at military roadblocks.
The Israeli authorities argue that the existing site cannot be upgraded for the interim period - until a permanent site is established with the aid of the donor countries; and they do not accept the opinion of a German expert, who claimed that controlled use of the site for another 2-3 years would cause only negligible environmental damage.
All of the above reinforce the concerns of the El Bireh Municipality that the Israeli authorities are exploiting the town's inferior economic and political standing and are using the lofty-sounding environmental argument so as not to grant the municipality's request - and the request of the donor countries - to allow it to use its waste disposal site for another year.
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