Israel’s Legal Chaos Makes West Bank a Paradise for Polluters

Israel needs to update its laws and apply this legislation across the Green Line, experts say.

Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat

Israel’s environmental laws have begun to resemble those in the West, but the  legal snafu in the West Bank leaves its inhabitants exposed to hazards. Burning trash, leaking sewage and illegal charcoal plants are only some of the problems.

As things stand now, roughly half of Israel’s environmental laws do not apply in the West Bank. Against this backgdrop, environmental group Green Now, which settlers set up to test the state of green legislation, held a conference last week.

“The Clean Air Law, which went into effect about three years ago, laid down stricter conditions for production facilities. But this law does not apply in the West Bank,” Nitsan Levy, executive director of the Municipal Association for Environmental Quality – Judea, told the conference. “This limits the ability to require factories to prevent air pollution.”

There are 12 industrial zones with hundreds of plants over the Green Line.

“We could require a metal factory in [Israeli town] Beit Shemesh, say, to obtain a special permit that limits the emission of pollutants,” said Shoni Goldberger, the Jerusalem district manager at the Environmental Protection Ministry. “By comparison, a similar facility in [settlement] Ma’aleh Adumim will not be required to obtain an emissions permit.”

Levy, meanwhile, warns that West Bank industrial zones could become a paradise for polluters. He cites “unfair competition among factories that must invest in preventing pollution and those that don’t have to invest as much.” It’s not just the Clean Air Law that doesn’t apply over the Green Line, it’s also the Law for the Prevention of Hazards from Asbestos.

“This law is particularly important because it concerns a real risk to public health,” said Yitzhak Meir, head of the municipal environment association in Samaria, the northern half of the West Bank. “We require that people use a certified professional company to remove asbestos refuse. We have no authority to make this requirement, but people don’t know that we don’t have this authority.”

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s so-called green police once worked well in the West Bank, but after Israel’s environmental enforcement laws were not updated last year, this force had to halt operations.

A recent attempt to enshrine in law enforcement powers in the region failed when the army demanded that these powers not include inspection or enforcement on its bases. As a result, at least seven criminal cases against settlements polluting the environment were halted.

Sewage destroying crops

One case concerns pollution of the Palestinian village Wadi Fukin. The source is the sewage-treatment plants in the settlement Betar Ilit. Although the settlement’s chiefs say the pollution was caused by problems now fixed, Yuval Arbel of Friends of the Earth Middle East says the sewage flows to fields and destroys crops. “Olive trees that rotted and died from the pollution can be seen,” he said.

The lack of enforcement authority in the area has also hampered the fight against the dumping of construction debris from Israel into the West Bank. Considered one of the worst environmental problems in the region, illegal dumping can pollute groundwater. But without the proper authority, inspectors from the Civil Administration or the Environmental Protection Ministry are helpless.

“It’s very easy and cheap to dump debris near a Palestinian village and pay the landowner 50 shekels instead of paying a proper dumping site,” said Meir of Samaria’s municipal environment association.

Meanwhile, most of the mountain aquifer, one of Israel’s most important groundwater sources, is in the West Bank, but Israel’s Water Law only applies partially over the Green Line.

Thus, the Water Authority can’t use the so-called corrective action order to prevent the pollution of water sources. In Israel, this tool enables the Water Authority to clean up pollution; it can then charge the local authority responsible for the problem.

The Non-Ionizing Radiation Law, which regulates licensing and planning for facilities that emit radiation like cellular antennas, doesn’t apply in the West Bank either, so it’s hard to inspect such facilities.

Recently, environmental groups operating in the West Bank were stymied when they tried to help set up biogas facilities there. These facilities recycle organic waste and use the gas created from it to produce electricity. But the agreement laid down by the Israel Electric Corporation for selling power from these plants is not valid in the West Bank.

Investors at the ready

“We have a site intended for a biogas facility in [settlement] Immanuel, and the local authorities signed an agreement to transport the waste there,” Meir said. “Investors are ready to build and operate the plant, but if the agreement set by the IEC isn’t valid, the investors will give up.”

According to Benny Elbaz, head of the Civil Administration’s environment unit, despite the legal restrictions, action has been taken to address major hazards in the West Bank. This was done with the help of organizations like the World Bank and countries that donate to the Palestinian Authority like Germany and the United States.

“A new trash-dumping site has been opened in Jenin, and 100 pirate dumping sites have been closed, with 90 percent of them rehabilitated,” Elbaz said, adding that Israel subsidizes the transport of trash from Palestinian villages near Ramallah to the site after a less-efficient one was shut down. But Green Now officials say many pirate dumping sites are still active.

Elbaz adds that several large sewage-treatment plants in the West Bank are in the planning and construction stages, and a high-quality plant is in operation west of Nablus. He says the Civil Administration is trying to get area residents to start using a charcoal-production plant that emits less pollution.

“The current situation is absurd,” said attorney Gidon Bromberg, the executive director of Friends of the Earth Middle East. “In regulatory terms, it’s the Wild West. It’s a paradise for environmental crime that affects life on both sides of the Green Line. To solve the problem, intense work is required to update the laws and environmental enforcement abilities in the settlements based on Israeli law.”

Still, Bromberg says such work should not be linked to initiatives to enforce Israel’s laws in the West Bank.

“We don’t believe that primary legislation should be changed to expand legal authority in environmental matters over the Green Line,” said Yael Yisrael, the founder and director of Green Now. “The intention is that via Defense (Emergency) Regulations, it's possible to use all environmental laws in effect inside the Green Line.”

Bar-Ilan University’s Environmental Law Clinic and attorney Hila Cohen of Green Now recently completed a study examining environmental laws in the West Bank. They found that according to international law, Israel must enact legislation to protect the public and natural resources there.

According to the study, this must be done in cooperation with the local Palestinians. The study recommends that the West Bank’s environmental laws be updated according to updates in Israel. If lawmakers oppose this, they must say why.

Also, the Civil Administration is trying to update and expand the environmental-protection laws in the West Bank. According to Elbaz, Defense (Emergency) Regulations will soon be issued for the Packaging Law to apply in the West Bank. Meanwhile, enforcement powers will be returned to inspectors from the Civil Administration and the Environmental Protection Ministry. The Packaging Law requires Israeli manufacturers and importers to recycle packaging waste.

There is also a plan to apply the agreement on biogas facilities in the West Bank, which would enable the large-scale recycling of waste.

Charcoal kiln in Area C, northern West Bank, 2011.Credit: Alon Ron

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