In the last two years, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have made a concerted PR effort to showcase their commitment to the environment. At the heart of this campaign, headed by NGOs and regional councils operating on the other side of the Green Line, is the call to separate politics from the environment. According to the settlers, it is important to create Palestinian-Israeli cooperation in order to tackle problems hurting both sides.
Environmental organizations and Palestinians reject this approach, as demonstrated by a conference held this week in Ariel under the auspices of the municipality and the NGO Green Now operating in the West Bank. The conference was entitled "Environment Without Borders" but not a single Palestinian attended; similarly, a representative of Friends of the Earth Middle East declined an invitation to come. They are convinced that participation in the conference would mean a legitimization of the settlements. But Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan did attend, and he accused the Palestinians of preferring to hurt their citizens, who are suffering from environmental pollution, rather than working with Israel to solve the problems.
What is not in dispute is the fact that the environmental situation on the other side of the Green Line is indeed grim, as reflected by the comprehensive report on the environment in Judea and Samaria prepared for the conference. The report, written by Israeli entities operating east of the Green Line, provides a great deal of information on the problems in the area. The report's main conclusion is that Israeli settlement activity (130 settlements, not including illegal outposts) has less of an environmental impact on the Palestinian Authority than the PA has on the environment in general, and on Israeli settlements in particular.
This conclusion is based primarily on how solid waste and wastewater are treated. The settlements enjoy the orderly treatment (to various degrees of purity ) of more than 80 percent of its wastewater, whereas the overwhelming majority of Palestinian wastewater undergoes no treatment whatsoever and continues to flow largely into Israeli territory. According to the report's authors, attempts to establish joint wastewater treatment projects, such as in western Samaria, were foiled by the Palestinians for political reasons. While solid waste in the settlements is moved to regulated landfills, the Palestinians operate many dozens of pirate solid waste disposal facilities. In addition, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation of a certain kind exacerbates the situation: Israelis smuggle construction debris for disposal on the other side of the Green Line.
"The laws aren't sufficiently enforced by the Civil Administration or the Environmental Protection Ministry," says the report. "It is not uncommon for Israelis to hire Palestinians to dispose of solid or construction waste on public land."
Is Palestinian unwillingness to cooperate with Israel for political reasons the only, or even major, explanation for the grim situation on the other side of the Green Line? An in-depth study of the report shows that even its own authors realize that there are additional factors explaining the Palestinians' inability to tackle waste disposal and wastewater treatment.
One of the writers, Dr. Nitzan Levy, director of the Municipal Environmental Associations of Judea and Samaria, notes that there is a significant difference between the organizational and professional capabilities of the Palestinians and those of Israel. He stresses the fact that the Environmental Protection Ministry hasn't formulated a problem-solving strategy that takes into account the gap in the sides' capabilities. In another part of the report, its authors admit that limitations on movement and access had made it difficult to build environmental infrastructures on the Palestinian side.
What the report fails to note is the fact that the very establishment of the settlements was a political act almost completely disconnected from environmental concerns or long-term planning. The settlements were built in order to grab land for Jews by establishing many dozens of residential points and small outposts, requiring the extensive - and expensive - dispersion of infrastructures and roads.
There were cases, also mentioned in the report, in which "The cost of the race to put facts on the ground by Israeli settlement activity was paid by nature. Some of the construction and expansions in the settlement program encroached on nature reserves."
The outcome was that for many years the settlements did not have appropriate solutions to wastewater and solid waste. Some of the problems have been solved in recent years only thanks to the more numerous organizational and professional resources available to Israel. A prominent example is the settlement of Ofra, built and eventually expanded long before it had a reasonable wastewater treatment solution. Currently, the state is trying to authorize a wastewater treatment facility built recently without permits on private Palestinian land.
Unfortunately, the immediate future doesn't hold good environmental news for Judea and Samaria. In light of the expected population growth on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, the pressure on environmental infrastructures is expected to grow greatly. And the lasting nature of the conflict doesn't leave a lot of hope for cooperation any time soon. It seems that, aside from some local examples of cooperation, each side will continue to go its own way. The Israelis, who can afford to do so, will continue to collect solid waste and treat wastewater, while the Palestinians have limited means, coming primarily from the deep pockets of donor nations that may help in maintaining basic infrastructures to handle environmental hazards.