For the first time, the Civil Administration on Thursday morning enforced environmental regulations against Palestinian charcoal plants that cause clouds of polluting smoke to waft over Jewish and Palestinian communities in the northern West Bank.

The plants receive pruned branches, mainly from Israeli farmers who have uprooted citrus and avocado orchards, and create charcoal by the slow burning — over 15 days to a month — of piles of wood surrounded by wet straw and soil.

The process causes massive amounts of smoke, pollution and strong smells and, according to media reports quoted by the Civil Administration — Israel’s governing arm in the West Bank — is linked to respiratory problems suffered by 25 percent of the children in the Palestinian town of Ya’bad, west of Jenin, and respiratory illnesses including cancer suffered by 70% of charcoal workers.

The administration on Thursday cited a 2007 survey of Ya’bad which showed that deaths from respiratory diseases and cancer were “significantly higher” than in other villages.

A Civil Administration tractor confiscates piles of wood from a West Bank charcoal plant, November 17, 2016. (COGAT spokesperson‘s office)

A Civil Administration tractor confiscates piles of wood from a West Bank charcoal plant, November 17, 2016. (COGAT spokesperson‘s office)

From 2012 to 2016, the ministry shut down 700 illegal kilns in Israel and in Area C — the part of the West Bank controlled wholly by Israel in accordance with the Oslo Accords signed by Israel and the Palestinians in 1995.

But many kilns are located in Area A — under total Palestinian control — and Area B, where control is shared by Israel and the Palestinians, “so Israeli authorities do not have control over them.”

On Wednesday night, Civil Administration officials entered Area B in the Jenin area, where they seized work tools and 160 tons of tree pruning waste loaded onto eight trucks.

The administration said it was taking action after having issued several warnings to the Palestinian Authority that it would enforce anti-pollution regulations if the authority failed to shut the plants down, Israel Radio reported.

Dozens of wood-burning kilns operate near Jenin in the northern West Bank.

Two years ago, the Menashe Regional Council petitioned the High Court to order the state to put an end to the charcoal plants, the Haaretz daily newspaper reported.

Last year, the court ordered the government to find a way to enforce the Clean Air Law.

As a result, the government set up an interministerial committee whose recommendations included designating a central location to which logs could be brought for recycling or energy production, examining greener options for wood disposal such as advanced furnaces, appointing more inspectors to ensure cuttings are not sent to the Palestinian West Bank and prohibiting farmers from giving pruned wood to anyone not authorized to take them.

An action plan devised by the environment and agriculture ministries includes requiring those who transport logs to obtain a license to ensure wood is sent to an authorized site, creating temporary facilities for wood storage and investing NIS 26 million ($6.8 million) in biomass factories, which use wood waste to create power.

Major General Yoav Mordechai of the Civil Administration said, “We are determined to take care of this charcoal hazard to public health, which harms both Israelis and Palestinians alike. In addition to this enforcement, which began today, and will continue in the future, we intend to open a dialogue with the charcoal producers to find technological solutions to lower the risks of charcoal production for workers and residents.”