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Israelis and Arabs join forces to fight illegal fires in the Shomron

CM 25/05/2021

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As my children cozied up to sleep in the sukkah last fall, the stench began. It started as a burnt-popcorn smell, swiftly transforming into a noxious odor that made it hard to breathe. We hustled our boys inside our home and closed all the windows. Even so, it was filled with the acrid smell of plastics, chemicals and other toxins.
From my vantage point on the edge of Neveh Aliza, I can sometimes see the fires. Flames lick big billowing plumes of smoke – sometimes gray, more often as black as death – that rise like a column into cloudless blue skies from an illegal dump site a kilometer from my home. The wind-borne smoke slowly blows into our neighborhood.
In hopes of addressing the fires, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) just announced a three-year project to subsidize the expansion of proper transport to the Saamet al-Finjan (Zahret Al-Finjan) solid waste station outside of Jenin.The subsidy of NIS 26 million is expected to help some 72 communities in Judea and Samaria pay the costs of transfer. It will also pay for half of the “tipping fees” (NIS 120 per ton of trash) that can be a financial burden to poor Palestinian communities. The money will be taken from the Cleanup Fund, derived from bottle and can deposits.
Karnei Shomron Mayor Igal Lahav has been working in his growing community, which spans El Matan, Ma’aleh Shomron, Neveh Aliza, Karnei Shomron, Neveh  Menahem, Gilad Farm and Alonei Shiloh. He says that the problem of illegal burning has been getting progressively worse, particularly over the past two years.
Gilad Farm, also known as Ramat Gilad, is one of the highest peaks in the Shomron foothills. From its summit, on a clear day, you can see as far as Zichron Ya’acov to the north, Ashkelon to the south, Tel Aviv – and fires burning in all directions. And the fumes travel beyond the Shomron.
The crux of the problem?
“One of the most serious results of the Oslo Accords is the environmental price,” states former MK Moshe Feiglin, founder of Israel Tomorrow (Yisrael Mahar), an alternative news site for Hebrew speakers, and a resident of Karnei Shomron.

The Oslo Accords clearly state that the Israelis and Palestinians are mandated to work independently, as well as together, on fighting pollution and environmental hazards. Everyone should be doing their part. But years later, no effective infrastructure has been put in place. Current hopes are that after three years, the villages will be able to assume responsibility for transporting their own trash. Whether or not that will happen is anyone’s guess.
According to Lahav, the fumes cross all the way from around his area in the Shomron into Hadera and Rosh Ha’ayin. He says the problem is largely because the nearest Palestinian sanitary landfill is far from the Shomron.
Israeli garbage is sent to a transfer station near Hadera. West Bank Palestinians have only two centers, one near Jenin and one near Bethlehem. According to Lahav, plans are being made for building a new Israeli transfer station in the Shomron near Emmanuel. I was unable to get an answer from COGAT on whether the NIS 26 m. includes a convenient transfer station for Palestinians.
Feiglin asserts that the problem is more than simply a poor understanding of environmental issues. “Prior to Oslo, Israel was monitoring the situation,” Feiglin elaborates. “It is not only air pollution, but also water pollution. Once Israel gave over control of the environment to the PA, Israel refused to do anything dramatic to solve the problem,” he said.
Prof. Yaakov Garb, an environmental scientist at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University has spent a decade studying waste fires and his team has published extensive articles on waste dynamics. He differentiates between types of fires but agrees that while some are more toxic than others, all of them are health hazards.
“There is 1) disposal burning, done to get rid of trash when waste collection systems fail,” explains Garb, “and 2) extraction burning, a burn process to extrude copper and metals from e-waste.” 
Disposal burning can be addressed by removing barriers to proper disposal, by creating convenient transfer stations, for example, and by educating and incentivizing local villages to use these instead of burning their trash.
“We have been working with the Ezor Mizrahi (eastern region),” Igal Lahav explained. “The local Palestinians don’t want to pay hauling costs and, in many cases, criminals have taken over the business. So they burn it. We have a WhatsApp group that reports fires. The IDF and Palestinian firefighters work together to put out the fires, but the next day the fires are burning again.” 
Extraction burning is harder to address. As the old saying notes, “One man’s rubbish may be another’s treasure.” The economy of some Palestinian towns in Judea and Samaria includes an entire industry devoted to extruding copper and other valuable waste from electronic components and tires, and e-waste from cables and machines, including discarded computers and appliances. These give off heavy metals, dioxins and furans, contaminants that poison the air and leave toxic residue behind. 
Depending on the amount of contaminated soil, the cleanup can take about a week per site and requires careful transport of the soil and ash to a certified hazardous waste site in Israel. Working with Palestinian residents and local authorities, Garb’s team prepared a plan to do this for 5,000 tons of toxics from the 60 most severe sites of the hundreds they have identified, and brokered international and Israeli funding for this effort. Currently frozen because of political deadlock, he hopes that headway can be made in the future.TOXIC SMOKE drifts from an burning site to a yishuv in the Shomron. (Judith Segaloff)TOXIC SMOKE drifts from an burning site to a yishuv in the Shomron. (Judith Segaloff)
One thing we all agree on
Yaniv Bleicher, a resident of Kfar Saba, became a clean air advocate the night he couldn’t open his windows without choking. In the coastal plains, the smoke was rolling toward the sea from surrounding Kalkilya and Jaljulya. Miriam Yaacobian, a mother from Tzufin, adjacent to Kalkilya, met Yaniv when she circulated a petition entitled “Say No to Cancers from Fires!” She collected over 1,000 signatures, not just from residents but from politicians on every side of the political spectrum. Yaniv took notice and together in 2015 they formed a group called Citizens for Clean Air.
“Our signatories came from everyone – from Israelis, from Arabs, extreme Left politicians to right-wingers,” explained Yaacobian.“ We brought the protest down to [Minister Ze’ev] Elkin’s house, then the environment minister. He acknowledged that the trash fires are a big problem.”
The unofficial group that started as a collection of people from all over the Shomron and Sharon today promotes anti-pollution efforts throughout the country and lobbies in the Knesset to increase funding and awareness of illegal trash burning.
According to Bleicher, the fires tend to intensify in the summer and especially in autumn, during olive harvesting season – which happens to be around Sukkot.
Olive waste also produces phenols, which unless disposed of properly can result in environmental damage. According to local harvesters I interviewed, the olive waste is typically burned along with plastic jugs, construction waste, and even pesticides. No wonder we were “smoked” out of our sukkah.
But Garb says, while Israelis are being smoked out, Palestinians in the burn towns are in an even more vulnerable situation. The smoke and its residual chemicals are in their soil and water. They track the soil into their homes and the contaminants cling to clothes on their clotheslines. Children play in and around burn sites, and sometimes the number one prescribed medication in these towns is for asthma. His research shows that childhood lymphoma risk is significantly elevated in areas of high burning, and residents are aware and fearful of the high level of other cancers and birth defects there. But, when this kind of crude recycling is one of the only options for livelihood, how can you possibly find a solution?
Garb’s team worked with local residents to develop and test a highly successful pilot project that began with supporting clean recycling (a grinding facility that extracts metals cleanly), and developing local enforcement through a volunteer alert network of “burn reporters” and response teams of the local municipalities.
In addition to the newly announced subsidy, expected to help pay for 400 tons of trash per month, COGAT issued a statement through an anonymous spokesperson indicating that it has carried out more than 1,000 enforcement actions against environmental hazards throughout Judea and Samaria, with an investment estimated at more than one million new shekels a year. These included, among other things: seizing trucks – as many as 200 trucks dumping illegal waste, as well as extinguishing active fires. In addition, weekly surveillance and enforcement operations are carried out against illegal activities at pirate waste disposal sites, as well as information and dialogue activities with the Palestinian councils on the subject.
We all breathe the same air
As we are all breathing the same air, we are hoping that the efforts will put us on the same page.
According to Lahav, “When we take the politics out of the discussion we can come up with solutions. We need to work together.
“We are all – Palestinians and Israelis – only guests on this planet. We are here for only our 120 years, but the ground and the water remain. If we don’t pay attention to the environment, what will we leave for our children?”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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