Israel's Dumping Ground

"When a truck unloads its garbage, it sounds like a battle is going on in the wadi," says Umm-Ahmed Musalah. And she knows whereof she speaks: Her house is located right at the entrance to a dump in the Palestinian village of Na'alin, about three kilometers north of Modi'in. In the two years since the site began operating, a big mound of garbage has accumulated on top of the wadi, and its outer edges are steadily encroaching on the vegetable garden and small orchard behind the house. Some of the trees have already dried out.

Even as she speaks, another truck dumps its load - construction waste this time - with a thundering noise, just two or three hundred meters from Musalah's garden. A cloud of dust rises skyward, momentarily obscuring the tile roofs of the Hashmonaim settlement on the nearby ridge. In the course of about two hours on the afternoon of Monday, November 19, eight trucks added their loads to the mountain of garbage.

"It's like this 24 hours a day; the trucks come even at night," says Musalah. "And they all pass right under the windows of the children's bedrooms and my father-in-law's window. At night the smell is the strongest. Underneath the mounds of dirt you see here, there's garbage."

The mayor of Na'alin, Ayman Sa'id, says that between 50 and 60 trucks come down the village's narrow main street every day, on their way to this dump or to another dump site to the west, which is situated on the lands of the neighboring village of Qibiya, amid its olive groves. Sometimes there's a traffic jam that lasts for up to an hour on the two-way street, when a truck has trouble maneuvering between the parked cars, falafel stands, lines of vehicles traveling in both directions and pedestrians crossing the road. Once, logs that were protruding from the back of a truck struck some power lines, cutting off the village's electricity for several hours.

From his office in the municipal building on the main street, Sa'id can tell just when a dump truck is passing, by the heavy rumble of the engine and a slight tremor in the building's windowpanes. Residents who live along the street confirm that the trucks also pass by at night and wake them up. The street can't take the stress of such heavy trucks driving down it every day, and the municipality can't keep up with the expenses of ongoing maintenance and repairs.

Umm-Ahmed prefers not to give her full name and is not willing to be photographed. "We're fed up with complaining. Nothing has helped," she explains. Her daughter also avoids the camera and does not want her name mentioned, and explains why the protests have not helped: "It doesn't help because where there's money, there's power." The residents of Na'alin have been trying for a year and a half to have the two dump sites, which are being filled with unknown waste products and making their lives miserable, shut down.

The two sites are private ventures of their landowners: Mohammed Nafa from Na'alin and Abdel Hakim Abd a-Nabi from Qibiya. Both sites are located in Area C, under Israeli security and administrative jurisdiction, in an area that is under the full jurisdiction of the Civil Administration. Both are close to the Green Line and to the separation fence, which goes right by the village lands. And both are visited exclusively by Israeli trucks unloading Israeli-made garbage.

"A truck bringing milk from Israel to the village isn't permitted through the checkpoint [on the Modi'in road]," says Sa'id, the mayor. "The soldiers at the checkpoint won't let it pass. It has to unload the merchandise back-to-back at the Bitunia crossing, about 15 kilometers east of the village, and from there another truck, a Palestinian truck, carries it west through all the villages and the narrow roads, in order to bring us the milk. That's how it works with all kinds of goods, including vital food products. They aren't allowed through the checkpoint that is right near us. But the soldiers, the inspectors of the Civil Administration and the police don't block the Israeli garbage trucks that pass through there all the time, even though they're well aware that the drivers are breaking Israeli law, and not just Palestinian law, when they dump the garbage in an unlicensed site."

The difference between

garbage and waste

People in Na'alin say the two landowners receive a payment of NIS 100 for each truck. Baha Sawalha of the environmental division of the Palestinian health ministry in the Ramallah district says the owners receive NIS 50 for each truck that dumps between 15 and 30 tons of waste. For comparison's sake: In Na'alin, which has 6,000 residents, a single truck collects and dumps garbage twice a week at the village's makeshift dump, unloading between 6 and 10 tons each time.

Mohammed Nafa, owner of the land at one of the unlicensed sites in Na'alin, warmly welcomes his uninvited guests: "Just write the truth. That's enough for me," he says. "There's a difference between garbage and waste: All that is brought here is waste - construction waste - not garbage, and the dirt that you see. The land here is rocky, it's not suitable for agriculture, and it's forbidden to build on it [an Israeli prohibition]. If they let me build on it, we wouldn't have turned it into a dump. It's an area of about five dunams. I'd like to improve the ground and turn it into a blooming garden. I also prepared a road to the hilltop across from it, which is covered with olive trees, but maybe the separation fence will go through there."

In the village, people say that at first it wasn't only construction waste that was tossed here, but other waste, too - the kind of garbage that creates a stench. Nafa vehemently denies this. He says that about two years ago, it was actually the neighbors from the Musalah family who suggested he open the site: They proposed that he have trucks come and unload construction waste so they could pick out the iron and sell it; they coordinated everything with the Israeli drivers. He agreed, but after a year they quarrelled and then he started operating the site by himself.

Umm-Ahmed Musalah refutes this, and says only that when dirt was dumped at the site they didn't object. The mayor, Sa'id, offers another, combined version of events: Yes, the initiative came from the Musalah family. Nafa received payment for each truck, and the Musalah family scavenged the iron and copper and sold it. But when they saw that the trucks were also dumping other sorts of garbage, some unidentifiable, which wasn't construction waste, they objected and complained.

An investigation by the Palestinian health ministry found that 90 percent of the waste is construction waste, and the rest is made up of textiles, iron and electric and telephone cables. There have been several cases in which children climbed on the mounds and got hurt as they scavenged in the dump. Nafa says he doesn't take money from every truck, that sometimes he pays for the dirt that is brought in. Sometimes he charges NIS 50, and sometimes NIS 100.

At the northern end of the plot, there is an encampment of goat breeders who moved up here from Yata. The father of this family, Mahmoud Ismail, says Nafa permitted them to pitch their tents and huts on his land, for free. He doesn't understand what all the fuss is about and has nothing but praise for his host. "He has 20 mouths to feed, he has no work, everything's fine here, he can't work in Israel. What do they want from him?"

Nafa corrects this: He actually does have a permit to work in Israel, "But this place provides a livelihood for many more people who come and collect the iron and wood and pieces of countertops. When trucks came and wanted to dump garbage and pay me for it I refused. I won't burn garbage."

Immunity in Area C

One of the drivers, an Arab citizen of Israel who had just finished dumping construction waste for an Israeli contractor from Asheklon, explains: "In the Negev it costs [the building contractor] NIS 1,000 to dump waste, and here you can dump it for free, or pay just NIS 100 per truck. I don't know exactly how much he pays. I'm not the one who pays. I've been working here for about two months, and there are a few more places like this in the territories. We got permission - oral, of course - to come through and dump the waste. The permission comes from the Israelis. It's better for them if we dump here than in Tel Aviv or Rosh Ha'ayin. They prefer for us to dump in the territories. And it's all construction waste here. There are no carcinogenic substances."

The driver says that he used to dump waste at the Qibiya site, but stopped "because there they burn [the waste] and you choke. I won't go there because of the smell. Here it's a pleasure. I don't think the place bothers people. There are Jewish neighbors here, too, and I don't think they've complained. If it bothered them, they'd be the first ones to complain, before the Arabs." And in fact, the secretary of the Hashmonaim local committee confirms that they have not received any complaints from residents.

"We heard about this place from other drivers, and so we started coming here, too," says the Israeli-Arab driver. It's a lot better here than in Qibiya, he says, "because there, the stink always stays on your clothes." Do only Jews dump garbage there? "No, no, Arabs do, too."

Abdel Hakim a-Nabi, on his land west of Na'alin, emerges from the clouds of smoke rising from his hilltop and from the mountains of waste and garbage. On this dreary day, the ground there looks like muddy coal. He is surrounded by a half-dozen youths with sooty faces and hands, who are scavenging in the piles of refuse. The remains of a mattress emit some final puffs of smoke. All that's left now are the iron springs. Amid aerosol cans, papers and plastic bags, an unidentified reddish liquid is visible. People in the village say they are afraid that hospital waste is also thrown out here.

Abdel Hakim a-Nabi was also willing to talk: "Look first of all at the municipality's waste site, which is below my site." He pointed to mounds of household trash at the edges of his plot: Amid the piles of puffed out and torn plastic bags, there were cow carcasses and poultry remnants. "There they throw everything. That's what's damaging.

"With us it's only construction waste. Three or four families earn a living from my site. I cover everything with dirt. I'd like to improve the ground and plant olives. The diseases are not from Israel's garbage, the diseases are from here. From Israel they don't bring animal innards, there are no chicken and cattle carcasses. Would they dump like this in the Jewish state? No way."

The mayor of Na'alin does not deny Abd a-Nabi's claims about the garbage scattered in the municipal dump. He says the municipality has dug a pit and now always buries the animal carcasses and covers them with earth. "We're waiting for the opening of a central site for waste disposal in Ramallah," he says. Local officials in the 75 other Palestinian communities in the district are also waiting. But the central waste site is not due to open before 2011, or 2010 at the earliest.

Abd a-Nabi says he opened his site in June of this year. "The land is of meager quality, there's not much you can do with it. But all the complaints are from Hamas people [who won in the Na'alin municipal elections]. If the Fatah from Ramallah asked us to stop, we'd stop. The Bedouin here collect the iron. They earn NIS 50 a day from it. At most, I get NIS 100 a day. I'm ready to close down the site right now, but only if the municipality also stops dumping its garbage here."

In June, say people in Na'alin, Abd a-Nabi was released from a Palestinian Authority prison. The reason for his incarceration is unknown to them. But it had nothing to do with the waste site, in any case, as one of his brothers, along with a resident of Dir Amar had been operating it for over a year prior to that. And "the Fatah from Ramallah" - i.e., the governor's office in Ramallah - actually did issue a warning to Abd a-Nabi, as it did to Nafa, too. Nafa was summoned to police headquarters in Ramallah and detained for a week at the Bitunia station. An indictment was filed against him, but the Palestinian courts work very slowly. In Na'alin, they say that Abd a-Nabi also received a police summons, but that he is keeping away from Ramallah and protecting himself by remaining in Area C, which is under Israeli security and administrative control.

Complaints didn't help

At night, and sometimes during the day, the fire and smoke rising from Abd a-Nabi's plot give off a sharp smell that stings the eyes and throat. In homes in Na'alin, toward which the wind blows, people complain of a burning sensation and respiratory problems. Children suffer from asthma. People do not work the agricultural area beneath the site on the assumption that whatever is irritating them is also bad for the olives. In Na'alin and Qibiya, they have decided to stick to legal protest actions and appealed to the law enforcement authorities in Ramallah. The local authorities encouraged people to stage protest demonstrations and talk to the media, but have generally tried to keep the anger from turning into a personal dispute with the landowners.

But the Palestinian Authority cannot have its police operate within Area C, and so its power here is very limited. The municipality's decision that the sites must be closed hasn't changed things a bit. Nor has the complaint filed with the Palestinian police. The order issued by Palestinian Interior Minister Abd a-Razaq al-Yihya to close the sites also had no effect.

The latest warnings from the governor's office in Ramallah were sent last weekend. But they, too, do not seem to make a difference. Reports from the environmental division of the Health Ministry saying that the sites are dangerous and being operated in violation of Palestinian law aren't worth the paper they're written on. On occasion, local residents have stood in the way of the trucks and blocked their path until they compelled the drivers to turn around and leave. But then the landowners found other roundabout routes for the drivers to take. They feel protected in Area C, under Israel's jurisdiction.

In the Ramallah District, next to the village of Shudah, five similar sites are operating for the disposal of Israeli waste. One operates non-stop; the others are only open intermittently. Each one has a different landowner. The Palestinian Health Ministry knows of at least six more unlicensed sites in the Salfit and Nablus area, where drivers dump Israeli waste.

"A week ago, we heard in a meeting with mayors that if we don't take action against this phenomenon, a year from now there will be 20 of these sites," says Sawalha of the Health Ministry's environmental division. "Every landowner tells me: I'll only close down if the others do."

Dr. Sa'id Abu Ali, the Ramallah governor, says he has personally spoken with the head of the Coordination and Liaison Department in the Ramallah region, Mansour al-Khatib, to complain about the unlicensed dump sites that are in the area under the jurisdiction of the Civil Administration. But so far, he says, he has not tried to coordinate with Israel the entry of Palestinian police into Na'alin in Area C.

The Civil Administration responds: "The Civil Administration has been working for a long time to eradicate this phenomenon. The head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, recently signed two injunctions that will give legal force to the prohibition against putting waste in unlicensed sites and the prohibition against causing olfactory hazards and air pollution. The Civil Administration's inspection unit regularly carries out enforcement actions at the unlicensed waste disposal sites in Judea and Samaria. In June and July, dozens of confiscations were made of dump trucks, mechanical engineering equipment and shelters."

And yet, every day, dozens of Israeli drivers continue to bring Israeli waste to the western part of the West Bank, to an area that is under full Israeli responsibility, via Israeli military checkpoints. The managers of the unlicensed sites continue to accept the Israeli waste and garbage completely unhindered. What a difference between the helplessness of the Civil Administration here, to judge by the results at least, and its energetic activity against the villages northwest of Jerusalem, which are searching for an orderly dump site sufficiently distant from homes and schools, where they could dispose of their waste.

The regulated site closed

Until 2004, the Beit Anan municipality used to collect and dump waste at a site south of the village that had been in operation since before the Palestinian Authority was established. In 2004, the separation fence was built in the area, and the village was no longer permitted to use the site. As a temporary alternative, the municipality had to choose an empty and isolated plot of land located amid olive groves, on the edge of a road connecting it with nearby villages.

This was during a period of proliferating checkpoints, which made it impossible to dispose of waste in the overflowing sites in Ramallah and El-Bireh. Meanwhile, west of the village, far from the concentration of homes and the cultivated land, there is an area totaling 56 dunams that is owned by the village council. Beit Anan and six other local villages decided to create a common waste disposal site there. A dirt road was paved on the side of the mountain and covered with gravel. Village officials began thinking about ways to recycle the waste, about planting trees along the road, about charging each truck a small sum.

The site opened in March 2006. But on August 3 of that year a big bulldozer from the Civil Administration came and tore up the road and installed seven barriers of large boulders and mounds of dirt. With the encouragement of the village council, the residents reopened the road so they could resume using the site. Several months went by, and then inspectors from the Civil Administration again closed the road, and also confiscated the truck used to remove waste from three villages (Qatana, Diya and Beit Anan) for 40 days. It was returned after receipt of an NIS 10,000 payment and a written commitment that it would not be used at the site again.

From 1997 to 2002, the villages of Beit Lakiya and Beit Sira used the dump to the north of them, near the gas station on Highway 443. But five years ago, the Civil Administration forbid them to continue using it. The Beit Lakiya garbage truck was confiscated and spent six months sitting in a Civil Administration lot. It was returned full of dents and other problems, and still does not run smoothly.

For lack of an alternative, the garbage from Beit Lakiya is being dumped at a site just a few hundred meters from the village houses, amid olive groves. A guard and his daughters remain there to try to keep people from dumping garbage in an uncontrolled way or setting it on fire. Still, the metal collectors often come and burn the plastic, and the heavy, searing smoke reaches the houses.

The Civil Administration told Haaretz that the two sites were unlicensed, and therefore were closed. Representatives of the villages say they heard from Civil Administration inspectors that the sites were closed because they are in Area C. It's a bit of a problem when the vast majority of the village lands in the area are defined as part of Area C, meaning they cannot be developed. In Beit Lakiya, out of 16,000 dunams, only 1,080 are defined as being part of Area A or Area B. And 4,000 dunams were swallowed up on the other side of the separation fence. In Beit Anan, out of 12,000 dunams, just 1,241 are defined as part of Area B (Israeli security control and Palestinian administrative control). The rest is Area C. This is more or less the situation in all the villages northwest of Jerusalem and west of Ramallah. "And the Civil Administration," says the mayor of Beit Lakiya, "always tells us that Area C is Israeli territory."W