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West Bank Faces Toxic Waste Crisis

by Mel Frykberg in Ramallah

The West Bank has become a dumping site for hazardous waste - which is making residents sick, say Israeli and Palestinian environmental groups.

Several weeks ago, villagers from Jima'in in the Nablus district complained that Israeli trucks were again dumping waste on Palestinian land.

Ayman Abu Thaher, the deputy director-general of the Palestinian Authority's Environmental Awareness Directorate said such dumping has been going on for years.

"The Israelis are using the West Bank as a cheap and easy alternative for dumping their waste at the expense of the health of Palestinians," he said.

According to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental group, improper dumping of contaminants and waste has over time become a threat to the region's drinking water.

Toxic percolation

A Palestinian walks through sewage drain under Israel's security wall [GALLO/GETTY]

In 2006, FoEME published a report, "A Seeping Time Bomb, Pollution of the Mountain Aquifer by Solid Waste," which found that the unsustainable disposal of solid waste has resulted in the percolation of toxic substances including chloride, arsenic and heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead into the groundwater.Since the 2006 report was released, the German government has built a new solid waste disposal project near Ramallah and the World Bank and the EU have also completed another solid waste landfill facility near Jenin.

But Mira Epstein, a spokeswoman for FoEME, said that despite the improvements, the threat to drinking water and the environment persist today.

Over three million people reside in the recharge area of the aquifer, which falls under both the West Bank and parts of Israel. The population includes 2.3 million Palestinians, 235,000 Israeli settlers and 500,000 Israelis living within Israel's internationally recognized borders.

Bassem Abu Mahdi, the director of primary health services in Salfit, which is located near a dump site in the northern West Bank, said an "increasing number of people have been diagnosed with cancer, amoebic dysentery, diarrhea and other related diseases".

He cited the dumping of hazardous waste as a cause of the increase.

Accusing Israel

Abu Thaher, told Al Jazeera that some Israeli companies were dumping waste in the Palestinian territories rather than resorting to the official hazardous waste treatment site, Ramot Havav, in southern Israel.

In 1985, Israeli pesticide company Geshuri closed operations in Kfar Sava and relocated to Tulkarem in the northern West Bank after Israeli residents petitioned for and obtained a court order for the company to move.

They had accused the company of being responsible for an increase in pollution-related health issues.

"A number of Israeli companies have relocated to the West Bank to avoid the strict environmental laws governing the disposal of waste, particularly hazardous waste in Israel," Abu Thaher told Al Jazeera.

Palestinians burning garbage

One environmental problem is the burning of waste by Palestinians [GALLO/GETTY]

But Tzali Greenberg, a spokesman for Israel's Environment Ministry, told Al Jazeera that the country's strict environmental laws are also enforced on Israeli companies operating in the Palestinian territories."There is no difference to us between Israeli and Palestinian waste," Greenberg said.

"It all gets treated the same and we follow perpetrators who break the law equally and we think people who are serious about this should contact us with the necessary evidence."

"We will be happy to follow up and take legal action."

Zecharya Tagar, from the Israeli division of FoEME, said most of the waste produced in the West Bank came from Palestinians, who comprise the majority of the population in the area.

He added that the biggest threat to both the environment and health in the region was the continual burning of waste by Palestinians.

"This is causing the air to be filled with carcinogenic particles which Palestinians are breathing in on a daily basis," Tagar said.

"Furthermore, Israel does not have a policy of dumping in the West Bank and to the best of our knowledge, this is complied with by the public sector."

Security trumps

But the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ), a NGO dedicated to promoting sustainable development in the occupied Palestinian territories, says waste from illegal Israeli settlements is the major problem.

"Wastewater from the settlements is not restricted to domestic effluent but includes pesticides, asbestos, batteries, cement and aluminum which contain carcinogenic and hazardous compounds," ARIJ recently reported.

It also accused Israeli authorities of being lenient on settlers who broke the law.

The faltering peace process has also contributed to the problem. The joint Israeli-Palestinian Environmental Experts Committee, established under the Oslo Accords, has not met since 1999, forcing coordination on the issue of solid waste to be done in an ad hoc manner.

The dumping of untreated medical waste, including used syringes randomly discarded in garbage dumps, continues largely because of restrictions on movement that the Israeli army argues is necessary for security reasons.

The extensive closures and roadblocks have also made it hard for wastewater tankers to reach the many Palestinian communities that are not connected to main sewage systems and are dependent on cesspits and these tankers for disposal of waste.

© 2008 Al Jazeera

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