Black smoke accompanied by the suffocating stench of burning plastic has become the norm on the Lachish hills in southern central Israel. It’s coming from Palestinian villages in the area, which have developed a vast but illegal industry of burning discarded electronic appliances to extract their metal for resale.
This activity is unhealthy for everybody in the area but neither the Palestinian Authority or Israeli government have managed to put a stop to it. The political tension between the sides also put a halt to a project that attempted to reduce the damage but no results have been yielded.
Three Palestinian towns – Idhna, Deir Sammit and Beit Awwa, all west of Hebron – developed a brisk industry of fixing malfunctioning electronics such as computers and burning the ones they can’t fix.
Dr. Yaakov Garb of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has been looking for solutions. In January him and two Canadian colleagues, John-Michael Davis and Grace Akese of Memorial University, published a paper in the Elsevier journal Geoforum on “e-waste hubs” in Lachish and elsewhere in the world.
“E-waste recycling has become the dominant economy in the West Line [Bank] villages,” they write. This rural area has a population of 35,000 within a 45km-square area, and this “ad hoc industry collects and imports up to 40,000 tons of Israeli e-waste annually, which supports over 380 businesses, more than 1000 full-time jobs.”
The e-waste is driven from Israel into this area by trucks – a feasible endeavor since “the overwhelming majority of the Israeli population lives within an hour drive of the West Line [Bank] villages,” they write. Moreover, the villages that process the waste are located near the separation wall, making the day-trip to collect waste easier.
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Israeli companies are happy about not having to pay to have waste removed for legal sorting and recycling within Israel.
Meanwhile the Israeli Civil Administration and Environmental Affairs Ministry have set up an inspection unit dubbed “David” to thwart e-waste smuggling from Israel in to the territories.
Burning electronics and cables produces metals, including copper, which has become especially costly. 223 sites in the area emit toxins these into the air, and reports show a relatively high level of local morbidity. Among other things, a direct connection has been found between lymphoma in children and proximity to the burn sites.
The Israeli settlements in Lachish are not immune to the fumes and illnesses. In fact in recent years new sites have been erected on the Israeli side of the separation wall.
Timna Eidan and Michal Efrat-Shkuri from the Eliav settlement are part of a grassroots drive to eradicate the burning. “At first we didn’t notice it,” says Timna. “The we started to document the burning, and grasped how serious the problem is. It happens every day, sometimes all day. The smell is unbearable.” A lot of young families whio live on the settlement with children are worried about future health problems, she said.
The residents have set up an action committee and have begun meeting with interested parties, environmental groups and Knesset members. They even reached out to nearby Palestinian residents looking to find a solution together. In addition locals have met with representatives of the e-waste-collection and recycling companies operating legally in Israel.
Tzahi Ein Gal, manager of Ecommunity - Social Corporation for the Recycling of Electronic Waste, admits that a significant proportion of Israeli e-waste goes over the Green Line to the territories, making it hard to meet the recycling targets set in Israeli law.
There are Palestinian voices also calling for regulation of the e-waste. Despite the number of Palestinian trucks being confiscated has been relatedly small, it causes severe economic hardship.
Last year Palestinian businessmen initiated the creation of a device designed to peel the plastic coating off copper cables so it wouldn’t have to be burned in order to extract the metal. The initiative included the Palestinian recycling company Safa and village leaders, in which Garb was involved, with the cooperation of the civil administration. The Swedish government also helped subsidize paying illegal waste truckers to bring the materials to the facility instead of bringing them to burning sites.
“The goal was to stop the fires and create an alternative that is environmentally safer,” Garb says. “We set up hotline for complaints about fires and were aided by local volunteers who would go to the fires and give them vouchers, to bring the cables to the facility for peeling for free.”
The local authority also began to fine e-waste burners – Sweden is also funding this enforcement, and some villages have started cleaning up the contaminated land. The copper peeling model has further proved a success, reducing fires by 90 percent, says Efrat-Shkuri.
At the end of the first stage, the Swedish government agreed to provided more funding but the Palestinian Authority opposed the very concept of Israeli waste being brought into its jurisdiction. The dispute prevented further funds and the black smoke and fumes are now back and the David patrol can’t make it stop, says Efrat-Shkuri. Garb has been trying in recent months to find a way to reach agreements and resume activity.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection said that they patrol and search for illegal e-waste burning sites which they close down. In the last four years they confiscated 950 trucks carrying illegal waste at crossing points between Israel and the West Bank, the coordinator said.
Yet the people living in the Lachish hills know that however many have been seized, most of the trucks will continue to ply the route, transporting waste illegally from Israel to the Palestinian towns. And the proof is right before everybody’s eyes: black plumes of smoke rising heavenward, day in and day out.