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Living Off Scraps: The West Bank's Bitter Harvest
To Israeli settlers on the West Bank, it's just the dump where their rubbish ends up. To many Palestinians, it's the key to their families' survival.
The stench from the refuse dumped by the trucks arriving every four or five minutes is pervasive, yet the men and boys sifting methodically through the rubbish hardly even notice the acrid smell any more. They are too busy looking through the discarded water bottles, bags soggy with food remains and near-empty family-sized hummus cartons. For along with discarded clothing it's the tin, steel and aluminium - cans mostly, but also, when their luck is in, the odd rusting car axle or broken toy bicycle - that earns the dozens of scavengers from the southern West Bank town of Yatta what little living can be made here by finding scrap saleable to dealers: often no more than 15 shekels (or just under £2) but on the best days up to 30. They work in this isolated place from early morning, arriving seven or eight to a car that has used the dirt roads to avoid the police because it is so grossly overloaded and has no licence plates; or walking the seven kilometres from the town; or by donkey. Once, says Ali Lamoor, 19, he was so tired at the end of the day that he lay down instead of going home and slept till morning, undisturbed by the howling of the hyenas that, he says, prowl these arid and rocky hills at night.
There is a system here. The municipality bulldozer drivers wait to allow the men to do their work before removing the mountains of rubbish to make way for the next load and mixing them with earth.
Once dumped here, the refuse is indiscriminately cross-community. The trucks with Arabic markings are Palestinian from West Bank cities as far away as Beit Jala, those with Hebrew ones are Israeli, from the Jewish settlements of the southern West Bank, and those with UN insignia from the refugee camps. Ali, who has been coming here since he was 12 and sports a filthy suede coat and flamboyant red and white keffiyeh, says the settlement rubbish affords the richest pickings - "it's seven stars garbage" - but warns that by the time it gets here it may have already been scavenged at least once. Claiming that both Arabs and Jews visit the settlement rubbish tips, he says: "A guy will go to the settlement to look for shoes. If he sees some good shoes he'll take them; if they're no good, he puts them back and that's what we get here."
The dump, providing the sole income for most who work at it, is far from unique. From the Philippines to Latin America, the urban poor have long foraged at similar tips. But it has become a potent symbol of West Bank poverty and unemployment - over 30 percent for adults - in a Palestinian economy close to collapse. Not least because Yatta, where the scavengers come from, is only a few kilometres from the border with Israel whose thriving first-world economy - despite its own pockets of real poverty - affords the highest per capita income in the Middle East.
The work can be dangerous as well as unhealthy. Ali says they often find used syringes as they pick through the rubbish; and many of the men here have cuts from stumbling into sharp metal or broken glass. Three weeks ago, the men say, Hijazi Rabai, a 27-year-old married man with four children, was scavenging here when his ancient tractor turned over and killed him. Nor does it make for respect among your neighbours. Even though all the men are scrupulous about cleaning up and changing their clothes after a day at the dump, "people smell us and it is not good," says Ali. "Sometimes they don't want to drink coffee with me." He even threatens to break our photographer's camera when we arrive - before quickly calming down. But he remains resolute - even when back home at Yatta - in refusing to have his picture taken. "People will laugh at me and say I work in garbage," he explains. In a culture where solvency is a precondition for marriage, he muses on what he would ask his family to say he did for a living to the parents of a potential bride. He hits on a formulation which is literally accurate without being humiliating. "I would tell her to say I'm a garbage collector," he says with a smile. But Ali, who confesses to having done badly at school but dreams of one day becoming a journalist, says at another point: "I haven't got a future. I will never get married."
Ali says that in the summer, when the students are on holiday, as many as 300 to 350 people come to the dump. Now they are back at university the numbers are down to between 70 and 100, mainly from three or four large Yatta clans, though he insists that "anyone can come. This is not our property".
But some students still work here even in term-time. Ali's cousin Taher and his twin brother Fadi are both at Al Quds Open University, studying education and English, respectively, and doing three days at the dump and three days earning degree credits for each course towards which they pay £35. Taher is trying to save some of the £2.50 a day he reckons he makes here. "I haven't paid my university fees for three months," he explains.
Ali's father left his wife, four sons and three daughters six years ago to move in with another woman in Qalqilya, adding to the burden on the sons to provide for the family. But many of those who work at Ad Deirat are married men with children of their own - almost all of whom used to work in Israel legally before the intifada began in 2000, and even afterwards, illegally, by sneaking across the border until heavier police enforcement against those without permits made it impossible. "We have no honour," says Ibrahim Daoud, 30, a father of two who was caught while trying to get to a construction job at the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. "We have three choices, to become a thief, a collaborator or to pick up garbage."
Mousa Rabai, 28, married with a five-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son, is another who made the third choice; he has a long red gash down his right shin from walking into a piece of sharp metal while foraging in the hills of refuse. He worked as a bricklayer in Beit Shemesh; he has been caught twice on the Israeli side of the border, fined 1000 shekels (£120) the first time and sent to prison for two weeks the second time. He built his own house in Yatta, but it is barely furnished; the floors - and the ramp up to the second floor - are rough concrete because he can't afford tiles or a staircase. A television and an old refrigerator are their only luxuries. Mousa says the family has given up red meat altogether and they eat chicken perhaps once every 10 days. Fruit is largely a luxury for the religious holidays.
The quietly spoken M r Rabai blames Ariel Sharon for his plight. Like many Palestinians he sees Mr Sharon's famous walk on Jerusalem's Temple Mount - or Haram al Sharif as Muslims know it - as the trigger for the uprising that began in September 2000. Whoever is to blame, however, the intifada has been an economic disaster for the town. Because so many of Yatta's men like Mr Rabai, worked in Israel in the 1990s, the town is among the worst hit by the security closures Israel subsequently imposed on its borders. His situation is typical; he owes £1,200 in debts incurred for payments ranging from groceries to medicine for his anaemic daughter. (According to the town's mayor, Khalil Younis, anaemia, often associated with poor diet, is 13 per cent higher here the West Bank average.)
Of his four brothers, all unmarried, three also work the dump, and a third is a municipality driver. But while the lifting of the international economic embargo of the Palestinian Authority - for the West Bank - after the installation by Mahmoud Abbas of a new, Hamas-free, emergency government three months ago means that PA employees are now being paid, that has made little difference to the shrunken revenue base of the municipality. In a town as poor as Yatta, where only a minority pay local taxes, Mr Rabai says his brother, the family's only actual wage-earner, has been getting around £215 every three or four months. Mr Rabi says he would gladly take a construction job in Yatta though the going rate is only around 50 shekels (£6) a day compared with six times as much in Jerusalem - where, thanks to the checkpoints and closures, he has no chance of going.
He is not the self-pitying type but he says he called his daughter Amal (hope) "because five years ago I had a hope that things would get better. He jokes: "If I had a daughter now I would call her 'frustration' or 'despair'."
While Mr Rabai left school at 15, his 26-year-old wife is a graduate in history and geography from Hebron University. "She tried to get a job teaching in a school," says Mr Rabai. "But she couldn't because we didn't have the connections. We are not Fatah and we are not Hamas." He says the couple were advised to bribe an official to get a job, but even supposing he had the funds, he says simply: "It is forbidden in Islam to pay money for a benefit like this."
Some of the problems of Yatta are localised; with average families of more than seven - partly because of what Mayor Younis labels as ignorance - population growth is even faster than in the rest of the West Bank. So is the lack of rain for farming in this semi-desert climate. But others are common throughout the occupied territory. According to the mayor, traditional agriculture has been badly hit by the loss of 1,250 acres of farmland to the surrounding Jewish settlements in the past 25 years. And the mayor says that valuable grazing land is among the 6,500 acres closed by the Israeli military.
There is however something stoical about the men who come to the dump. Mahmoud Lamoor, 42, father of Taher and Fadi, who after years as a housepainter in Israel, first went to scavenge at Ad Deirat after the West Bank closures at the time of the 1991 Gulf War puns cheerfully that "our future is in the garbage" but adds that "God is putting the poor to the test". Like Mr Rabai he is dismissive of both the main political factions, which he says "are busy with clashes among themselves." He adds: "The poor people are buried. There is no support from the government. We read that millions are being paid to the Palestinian people but it doesn't come here. We only depend on God. But even if we work in garbage, I live in dignity. I won't allow anyone to mock me." Certainly, if there are economic benefits to accrue from the new rapprochement between the emergency Palestinian government in Ramallah and Israel, they may take a long time to turn around the deep depression in Yatta. Nevertheless, "I hope this will happen," says Mr Rabai. "Then everyone can have a clean job."
© 2007 The Independent