Hebron, West Bank, December 2014, (Ajyal Network) – Under a blanket of darkness (G.A.) lights a fire in piles of “scrap metal”. By the time the sun rises, the flames would have eaten up anything to do with plastic or foam, giving him a chance to gather remaining metals. The black smoke billows into the night while the morning light reveals new health catastrophes awaiting a solution for years.
(G.A) is one of 2000 workers , a third of which are children, according to police reports. They make a living out of randomly recycling thousands of tonnes of “scrap metal” at the cost of every human being, animal or plant living next to the burning sites as this two-year-long investigation has documented.
In the village of Ithna, west of Hebron, the illegal burning and treatment of “scrap metal” takes place between two residential areas housing almost 40,000 people. In addition, burning takes place in three major sites: Beit Awa, Deir Samt, Al Koum, all part of the Municipality of Al Yassiriya, south of the West Bank.
Around 30,000 tonnes of “scrap metal” enter the four localities on a daily basis, mostly coming from areas in Israel. The goods are collected in 200 mostly outdoor sites where they are dismantled or burnt, or both.
This reporter followed in the footsteps of this journey of pollution: Israel – Gilo Settlement – Palestinian Territories – Settlements in Israel.
The culprits are “Israeli and Palestinian middlemen”.
The smuggling and burning takes place despite a 2010 Palestinian Law prohibiting any dealings with Israeli settlement, whether products or services. There are over 650.000 Israeli settlers living in 144 settlements in the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
The middlemen take advantage of negligence by the Palestinian Authority and the fact that Israeli settlements are not governed by the Palestinian taxes system.
This reporter has discovered that “the agents and workers” working in the “scrap metal” recycling are abusing the non-adherence of the Palestinian Authority to laws it own ministries have enacted and the conflicting roles of Palestinian ministries, the security and the justice system in enforcing law.
In addition to respiratory health risks facing members of the local communities where the burning is taking place, these violations are also causing losses to the Palestinian Authority’s treasury in the form of lost duties on this illegal trade.
Under Israeli-Palestinian agreements, goods and merchandise exchange by the two sides cross four commercial crossings. But the “scrap metal” it seems, takes another route.
Dr. Jad Ishaq, director of the Applied Research Institute (non-governmental) defines “scrap metal” as computer equipment, industrial and military leftovers and the remains of engines and machines brought by Palestinian and Israeli agents from Israel and brought to the above-mentioned areas. These are then burnt by Palestinian workers and the metals are extracted, in exchange for measly sums of money; the clean extractions are taken back to the source.
The Institute is currently carrying out a project to strengthen environmental governance and has adopted “the electronic waste from the municipality of Ithna in Hebron” as a case study.
Dr. Ishaq explains that “scrap metal” takes this journey to Palestinian territories due to the high price of treating and recycling this kind of waste material in Israel because of the stringent environmental laws.
A study carried out by the “Israeli Federation for the Protection of the Environment” in 2011 showed that the safe treatment of “scrap metal” — with the exception of engines — on average costs 500 Euros ($650) a tonne. This is much less than the cost of $100 a tonne to transport the “scrap metal” to the West Bank and burn it in random areas, where useful metals are extracted and returned to Israel.
With the help of a third party, this reporter managed to communicate with officials at the Israeli Ministry of the Environment. The officials revealed that returns of this black market trade have reached three billion Shekels ($ 800 million). The same officials also say that pollution levels in Israel, close to the four burning sites on the Palestinian side have gone up 7% as a result of the burning processes and the numbers must be much higher in the Palestinian Territories.
The ministry officials also admit that an illegal trade with the Palestinians exists but that authorities are monitoring and clamping down on it.
The mayors of both municipalities (Ithna and Al Yassiriya) say that a small percentage not exceeding 5% of “scrap metal” coming from the Palestinian cities in the West Bank are gathered and collected with that originating from Israel.
The administrative powers on the Palestinian side have deteriorated to the extent that the villages provide electrical and water supplies to the “scrap metal” shops found in areas under their influence, even if they were within distance from schools, as this reporter has documented.
Official sources confirm that all these locations are unlicensed and have not met any of the conditions set by the Palestinian Environmental Law. Yet, they still receive utilities.
In addition, the Palestinian Authority’s concerned authorities are not criminalizing the end product: extracting metals from scrap, burning next to housing and on agricultural land as well as employing minors, as revealed by this investigation.
And they are overlooking the large amounts of unpaid taxes on this trade as the Tax Department in Hebron explains: “The scrap metal is not used in the Palestinian Territories it is just treated here.”
Atef Al Awawdeh, Mayor of Al Yassiriya, explains that the “scrap metal is brought over from Israel by Israeli and Palestinian traders and awaits separation and extraction of metals (Iron, Copper and Aluminium) and returns again to Israel via Adora Settlement.
This route differs from the one that most Israeli imported goods entering into the West Bank takes as they go through the “Tarkoumia” trade crossing. Goods go through with tax papers subject to trade agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As for the “scrap” it enters through the Gilo crossing for individuals.
Al Awawdeh, himself a former “scrap metal” dealer, adds that the material enters and leaves without any tax papers.
Upon arrival at the “scrap metal” shops it is separated in order to categorize and extract the different metals partly by dismantling and also by burning to get rid of any plastic material around the metals. The clean and separated metals are then returned to Israel via the settlement.
Al Awawdeh explains that the extracted metals make a stop at the settlement for security reasons in order to check the contents before entering Israel and to keep it within the Israeli tax bracket so that the trader would not be forced to pay any additional taxes, which would have been the case had it entered through the official channels.
Dr. Jad Ishaq explains that “this is a rather cheap manner used to get rid of waste, because if it remained in Israel and was subjected to Israeli regulations it would have to adhere to strict guidelines in the removal of all pollutants and end up being carried to the hazardous material dump site in the Ramomat Hofaf in the Negev desert. This would have been the easiest and cheapest manner to get rid of the material.”
Atef Al Awawdeh who was a “scrap metal” dealer before he became mayor of Al Yassiriya says that the “scrap metal” store that he owned was the only licensed shop out of 200 other stores in the area. The Environment Quality Authority and both municipalities (Ithna and Al Yassiriya) all confirm that none of the stores have been issued a license.
Al Awawdeh informed this reporter that in 2011 he paid 180000 Shekels (half a million dollars) in taxes to the Palestinian Ministry of Finance for his “scrap metal” trade because he brought in his material legally and with bills.
As for the other stores, they are “all using Israeli company names that bring in the waste to be burnt and then send back the extracted metals to Israel.” In this manner this business remains within the Israeli tax jurisdiction and at the same time the junk is recycled cheaply.
Despite many attempts, the owners of these “scrap metal” stores have refused to talk to this reporter or to people they do not know because they are worried that “tax inspectors are observing them.”
Awawdeh admits: “We as Palestinians are losing thousands of Shekels and only gaining pollution!”
An official from the Tax Department who refused to give his name because he is not authorized to speak to the media, says that this trade does not get taxed because “the goods are not sold or consumed in the West Bank… these materials go back into Israel after being treated.”
He added: “the ‘scrap metal’ stores are not registered with the Tax Department, we only have files for one company which pays its taxes that of (Al Karama Fee for Metals)”. Al Awawdeh says that prior to the closure of his company it was registered with the tax department.
While searching in the archives of the Palestinian ministries, this reporter came across a document issued by the former minister of economy Maher Al Masri in 2004, forbidding the entry of certain goods into Palestinian territories, including used computer and their parts.
But this decision has remained simply ink on paper as hundreds of trucks pass through the Ithna area throughout the year carrying used computers.
Hisham Al Tameezi, mayor of Ithna says “Israel’s erection of a wall in the years 2003 – 2007 between them and the West Bank lead to the loss of many jobs for Palestinian workers and the emergence of this random trade that surprised everyone.”
He adds: “the high unemployment rate coincided with the increase of the cost of raw metals in the world and this prompted many workers to start collecting “scrap metal” in the West Bank with the aim of selling it to Palestinian traders who would export it to Israel. This was the start of this business which led to the importing of industrial remains from Israel in order to extract metals.”
This reporter took photos of burn sites and “scrap metal” shops where electronic remains constitute part of the waste material.
The Ministry of Economy did not carry out its decision to forbid the entry of computer parts despite the law being issued.
Maher Al Qaisi, the director of the department of the Ministry of Economy in Hebron said “there is no resolution issued by the national authority to forbid the entry of these materials into the Palestinian Territories.”
He added: the manner in which the public should deal with these materials should be in accordance with certain regulations in order to prevent any harm from happening to both citizens and the environment. These guidelines should be in coordination with all the concerned ministries and the benefitting areas since hundreds are working in this trade, which constitutes a partial solution to the unemployment crisis in the Palestinian Territories.
The mayor of Ithna reveals that almost 30 tonnes of “scrap metal” enter the village on a daily basis in order to be recycled in different ways but mostly through burning.
On July 20, 2012, Yousef Abu Safiyeh, the director of the Environment Quality Authority, while on a visit to the region, said: “these materials are being burnt near residential areas and this could lead to the emitting of poisonous substances such Dioxin, and the least of its causes is Cancer.”
Dr. Ramzi Sansour, director of the environment centre at Birzeit University says that the substance that the minister was talking about is “essentially carcinogenic elements.”
When asked about how to scientifically verify for the existence of Dioxin, Sansour answers: “Unfortunately this cannot be done in our local laboratories or in any part of the region. It can only be tested in labs in developed countries, after taking samples in a professional manner by experts.” He also says that theoretically one can also determine the existence or lack thereof of Dioxin.
Going back to the information provided by the World Health Organization (Events report no. 225/May 2010) we find that “dioxins are very toxic substances and can lead to birth and genetic defects and can also cause cancer.”
The WHO continues by saying that one of the main sources of this gas are the emissions resulting from “the burning of certain undetected substances (solid waste and hospital waste) due to the incomplete nature of the burning process.”
I went to the Palestinian Ministry of Health in search of statistics on the number of cancer cases in the listed areas to compare with other locations but was told “there are no scientific studies on the spread of cancer in Palestinian society or locations where it prevails.”
Yasser Issa, director of environment at the Health Department in Hebron confirms that there is an increase in cases involving skin and respiratory diseases in the village of Ithna “but we cannot give numbers” as the treatment is usually given out at private, government and national clinics.
Dr. Salah Al Tameezi, a private physician in Ithna says there is an increase in the number of cases with respiratory problems as well as moderate asthma in children, in addition to raised levels of sulphur in the blood that has lead to colon inflammations and sinus allergies besides other skin diseases.”
When asking for documentation we were shocked to discover that cases were not registered at clinics in the area; prescriptions are handed out and the matter ends there.
Abdul Hameed Islaymia, drug manufacture specialist – and a native son of Ithna – says that the number of chest and respiratory ailments are very high in the village. In comparison, the village consumes double the amount of chest allergy medication than any other village, taking into consideration the population; this is an indicator of the spread of the disease. Eight out of 10 workers in the burning of “scrap metal” who spoke to this reporter confirmed that they have suffered from at least one of the above-mentioned ailments adding that their economic and social conditions and the lack of alternative opportunities forces them to carry out such work.
Itimad Jaber, a teacher at Al Koum mixed elementary school, says she notices “the children become drowsy as soon as the smell of smoke enters into the classrooms and this continues until the end of the day.”
This reporter has observed “scrap metal” being taken out by the store owners, usually during the night, to agricultural areas to be burnt and then brought back to the stores as clean metal.
Workers usually refrain from talking so that they are not pursued. But this reporter managed to get some testimonials. “Workers in this dangerous field do not have any insurance against work injuries and we do not wear suitable clothes and shoes.”
(G.A.) says “on one occasion we found 700 kilogrammes of landmines and rockets amongst the “scrap metal” shipment that had arrived from Israel. Had we burnt it, it would have been a catastrophe!”
The Palestinian Police Archives have many pictures going back to November 2011 showing hundreds of rockets. Police sources say that bomb experts would comb the area to make sure it was free from any military equipment as well as explosives.
Another worker called Mohammad says he is a university student and he chose this job because he can take time from work to go and attend his university lectures, something that no other job would permit. He can burn the junk at any time!
Abdul Majeed Salim Hamdan is one of the well-known bee-keepers in the area and a founding member of the municipality of Ithna. He says: “the village has lost almost 3000 bee hives because of the smoke from the burning of “scrap metal.” Each hive produced an average of 10 – 15 kilograms of honey prior to 2006.
Hamdan is adamant about the connection between the smoke and the bees leaving the hives “before the burning started the bees were producing honey for years.”
Sabri Murshed a local farmer says that during the olive picking season the farmers’ faces would look like those of car mechanics due to the ash remnants on the tree leaves, coming from the continuous burning. He adds: “I can’t eat my own olives or sell any because of the ash on them.”
The ministries of Labour and Health do not follow-up with the “scrap metal” workshops, according to the mayor of Ithna. He says: “everyone tries to put the blame on the municipality (…) what has the Ministry of Labour done about child labour? Why isn’t the Ministry of Health following up on the diseases resulting from the burning?”
Jamil Al Mutawar, deputy director of the Environment Quality Authority says that they refuse to license these stores. “They are all unlicensed because they deal with dangerous, toxic and carcinogenic materials.” But he adds “some stores get local licenses from the municipalities.”
The mayor of Ithna responds by saying “we have not legitimized these businesses because they do not follow the safety and protection requirements but all governmental bureaus should carry out their duties.”
The Palestinian Environment Law issued in 1999 states in Article 48: “All concerned areas should not issue any licenses to establish projects, businesses or activities until an approval has been given from the Ministry of Environment.” Despite this almost 200 businesses have been established and have not been licensed. Yet they still receive water and electricity supplies from the municipalities of Ithna and Al Yassiriya.
Some of the “scrap metal” stores that work outside the jurisdiction of the municipalities get licenses from the Ministry of Local Governance (Ministry of Municipalities) using the same method. Ra’ed Al Sharbati, the director of the Local Governance Department in Hebron says that this sector is in need of organization and points out that there are statistics that indicate 2000 are employed in it. According to Sharbati and the two mayors, licenses are usually given for agricultural businesses and after they are provided with electricity and water the owners start using them as “scrap metal” shops.
Akram Sharoof, the director of the Environment Department in Hebron says that the family influence and nepotism in the area has made “it impossible for anyone to put down the names of those who carry out the burning; we asked the municipality of Ithna for names and they never got back to us.”
The mayor of Ithna, Hisham Al Tameezi, confirms that it is very difficult to apply the law without the help of the security forces. “Due to the current economic and social conditions and the harsh work environment some matters are difficult to enforce even if they were law and the executing authorities are present.” He considers this matter to be of a security nature and believes that security forces can enforce it immediately.
He believes that the security forces should deal with this matter by using a “knowledge based security scope” where it concerns the individuals or groups carrying out the burning and deal with them forcefully.
Most of the burning takes place at night because the smoke disappears in the darkness. This is confirmed by Atef Al Awawdeh, mayor of Al Yassiriya, who says that he had called the police himself when he saw fires burning in residential areas “but they did not show up.”
The police commander of the village of Ithna, Hatem Ka’abar, says the burning is at night because they are afraid the police would show up during the day. He reassures that they respond to calls no matter what time of day.
However many of the citizens of the area informed this reporter that “on most occasions the police does not respond when called regarding fires at night.”
The number of calls that that the police receive on average per year are between 50 and 100 whereas 12 children out of 25 persons were arrested in the first four months of 2010 according to Ithna police reports.
Hatem Ka’abar confirms that police patrols are being carried out and that anyone taking part in the burning is arrested and brought to justice, however he does add that the job of the police is limited to stopping the burning and they have no control over the entry of “scrap metal” into Ithna. There is no law that forbids the entry of such material from Israel.
Jamil Mutawar, the deputy –director of the Environment Quality Authority (Ministry of Environment says that “scrap metal” is considered part of the solid waste that contains dangerous material.
The absence of a clear policy on how to deal with this challenge has created an environment that permitted the entry of all kinds of waste from Israel into the Palestinian villages. While the police are trying to prohibit the burning of waste, all concerned authorities have been ignoring the entry of tens of thousands of tonnes of “scrap metal” in the last few years, which makes the efforts useless. This is the opinion of Hamad Fadel Al Assoud, member of the Popular Committee for the Prevention of Environmental Pollution in the village of Ithna, who wonders why these materials are not stopped from entry?
This reporter documented six verdicts issued by Palestinian courts between the start of 2009 and the end of 2011 against “scrap metal” workers who were arrested during burning sessions. The sentences ranged between total pardon and a fine of 100 Jordanian Dinars ($140); some received prison terms of one week, in accordance with Article 23 of the Palestinian Environment Law.
The Ithna Police Commander considers that the articles of the law that are implemented by the District Attorney or the Judicial System are not restrictive because they are applied to individual cases where the violators are burning solid waste such as household garbage in areas that are not meant for such things and not being applied to the larger issue at hand that is going on in the villages of Ithna and closer areas.
The phenomenon of “burning scrap metal” emerged within a complicated atmosphere: with the Israeli occupation from one side and the Palestinian Authority with its security and civil corporations on the other. As Israel has sole control over the crossings, the responsibility of the entry of these materials into the West Bank and their random treatment falls on its shoulders.
However the citizens of the area who are reaping the negative effects of this trade believe that this will continue as long as Israel has an interest in the “cheap solution” to this waste. But what about the Palestinian Authority whose citizens are paying the price?
Despite the adverse environmental and health effects, which the PA has confirmed in the mentioned areas, in the last few years, the Authority has not taken any administrative or political action that forbids the entry of the waste products into the territories under its control.
The Environment Quality Authority (Ministry of Environment) did not attempt to shut down the “scrap metal” shops by issuing administrative orders in accordance with the clear texts and authority stipulated by the Environment Law. It has also not gone to the courts to issue judicial rulings despite rejecting the establishment of these shops.
The Ministry of Economy has not followed on its ruling to ban the entry of used computers despite issuing a resolution to that effect.
The two municipalities and the Ministry of Local Governance have continued to provide water and electricity services to “scrap metal” dump sites despite their non-compliance with licensing regulations. The Ministry of Labour has done nothing to put an end to child labour in this sector and the Ministry of Education seems to be resigned to the fact that these “scrap metal” sites are within metres from schools.
And despite the police arresting many of the workers who are involved with burning the “scrap metal” and sending them to the District Attorney and then to court, the DA’s office has not carried out any investigation of the type of materials being burnt nor asked about its source or their employers. It simply charged them with crimes the punishment for which is not restrictive, in accordance with Article 23 of the Palestinian Environment Law. This is evident from the court minutes in my possession. The judges relied on the evidence and information presented by the DAs without asking for specialized opinions on this dangerous matter they were ruling upon, and which kept re-occurring.
As for the Ministry of Finance and the Tax Department, they are of the opinion that if the “scrap metal” does not come from Israel into the West Bank for commercial purposes, it need not be taxed. It is also relevant to mention that the two bureaus exchange accusations over responsibility rather than work together and coordinate in order to combat this phenomenon, in the absence of a binding resolution banning the entry of waste into the West Bank.
This reporter has not found conclusive evidence that official sources are in collusion with those benefitting from this trade, even though the negligence may stand as such; civilians combatting the burning of “scrap metal” believe this to be true. Sarah Al Awawdeh, director of the Al Nahda Family Society, which is active in the region, says: “there are officials for whom this trade is beneficial despite its catastrophic consequences.” She wonders, “would they permit me to trade in narcotics? What is the difference between this trade and that of narcotics? Both cause deaths!”
Until the law takes effect the school children in the area continue to hope for a clean school environment away from the smell of smoke emitting from the nearby burning heaps of “scrap metal.”
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and coached by Mohammad Al Daraghmah