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Maysoon Sweity, a 54-year-old Palestinian from Beit Awwa, sits on the roof of her home and watches as e-waste and garbage burns near the concrete wall separating her village from Israel on April 26, 2019. (Tamir Kalifa)
Maysoon Sweity, a 54-year-old Palestinian from Beit Awwa, sits on the roof of her home and watches as e-waste and garbage burns near the concrete wall separating her village from Israel on April 26, 2019. (Credit: Tamir Kalifa)
ToI investigates'We’re living on poisoned ground'

A deadly trash trade is poisoning Palestinians in the West Bank

Burning Israeli scrap for valuable raw metals is a lethal livelihood for thousands of Palestinians, sending cancer rates skyrocketing in villages near Hebron

Maysoon Sweity, a 54-year-old Palestinian from Beit Awwa, sits on the roof of her home and watches as e-waste and garbage burns near the concrete wall separating her village from Israel on April 26, 2019. (Credit: Tamir Kalifa)

BEIT AWWA, West Bank — When Israa’s four-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia, she spent little time wondering why. The answer was all around her: the acrid, toxic smog created by Palestinians burning Israeli electronic waste to extract valuable raw metals.

“There isn’t a house on our street without someone who’s had cancer or passed away,” said Israa, who lives in Beit Awwa, a small town near Hebron.

In the rolling hills west of Hebron, Palestinians live amid clouds of billowing black smoke caused by their neighbors setting fire to discarded waste, almost all of it from Israel, in order to glean the prized copper within.

The lucrative industry supports thousands of Palestinians and their families, bringing millions of shekels into the local economy. But Palestinians also pay a high price for the burners’ pollution.

Cancer cases in nearby towns are sky-high, with children falling ill with the destructive disease at four times the rate of the rest of the West Bank, according to research by Israeli environmentalist Yaakov Garb.

Beit Awwa, with a population of 8,000, buried four cancer victims in just one week in mid-November, most of them young, a local health official said.

“We’re living on poisoned ground,” said Shadi Sweity, a resident of the small town. His brother, Mohammad, died from liver cancer in late November, at the age of 48.

Shadi Sweity, whose brother Mohammad died of cancer in late November, in front of his house in Beit Awwa on December 22, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Israa, who asked not to be publicly identified, tries to protect the rest of her children by shutting the windows when the air outside fills with acrid smoke. She places green, leafy plants throughout her house in an attempt to counteract the pollution.

If I could, I would take my children and flee this place

“If I could, I would take my children and flee this place. I’m scared that they will someday get sick too, God forbid,” she said.

The poisonous black smoke drifts across the West Bank security barrier into Israel’s southern Lachish region, leaving Israelis fearing for their children’s future as well.

“We haven’t seen any effects yet, but we know it’s only a matter of time. We keep breathing in this smoke, and it’s terrifying,” said Timna Idan, a resident of Eliav, a quiet Israeli town two kilometers from Beit Awwa.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have both vowed to crack down on the toxic burning. But Palestinians live under a series of overlapping regimes, making enforcement seem like a nearly impossible challenge.

Attempts to end the burning have fallen apart, mired in disputes between Ramallah and Jerusalem. So, for now, the toxic practice continues.

‘For a few shekels’

Most of the world’s waste is not recycled. Wealthy nations around the world instead ship their trash to poor countries. The same dynamic plays out between Israel and the Palestinians — a rich state alongside impoverished communities.

Israel generates about 130,000 tons of electronic scrap per year, according to official estimates. Much of it is smuggled into the West Bank, where it is resold or stripped by Palestinians seeking the valuable raw metals within.

“We see this phenomenon all over the world, but Israel’s ‘Third World’ is just 10 to 15 minutes’ drive away from central Israel,” said Garb, a professor at Ben-Gurion University who has spent years studying the industry and its impact.

Tamer Abu Jhaisheh, co-owner of Safa Recycling, holds ground plastic peeled away from electronic cables by his factory’s machines. Cables are often burned for their valuable raw materials in the West Bank, and the toxic waste fires lead to high rates of cancer (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Both Israeli and Palestinian law bars the transfer of Israeli waste to the West Bank, but the shipments continue apace. Some Israeli companies and individuals save thousands of shekels, or even turn a profit, by sending their waste to smugglers, who sell it to Palestinian scrapyards.

“Disposing of a ton of electronic waste or other trash can be hundreds of shekels cheaper in the Palestinian Authority than in Israel. There’s a very powerful economic incentive here,” said former Environmental Protection Ministry director-general Yisrael Dancziger, who held the post from 2015 to 2018.

A burn disposing of e-waste scraps and garbage in Deir Samet on Jan. 11, 2019 (Tamir Kalifa)

The towns of Beit Awwa, Idhna and Deir Samet have emerged as the center of the West Bank’s waste trade. The three villages are bound together by a winding, half-paved road lined by work yards filled with towering heaps of scrap metal.

On the outskirts of Idhna, verdant olive groves melt away, replaced by pockets of charred earth. Local farmers say the ground used to be fertile and cultivated; now, riven with lead, it yields only sour, wizened crops. Once-prized olives now provide bitter and useless oil.

The West Bank barrier looms over the landscape. The concrete slabs are black with ash and charcoal from late-night burning sessions conducted near the wall. The husks of refrigerators, stripped of steel and emptied of Freon, are strewn in the soot.

Palestinians burn trash near the security barrier in towns west of Hebron (Tamir Khalifa)

The rampant pollution has left few families unscathed. Researchers have found dangerously high levels of lead in local children, which can cause long-term neurological damage. Other Palestinian residents have suffered sudden, debilitating respiratory diseases after being exposed to burning waste.

Idhna Mayor Muammar Tmeize blames the toxic smog for the cancer deaths of his two brothers, both of whom were in their mid-40s.

“Soon, every house in Idhna will be touched by this,” said Tmeize. “All for a few shekels.”

Tmeize said he sympathizes with his Israeli neighbors across the barrier, who also suffer the effects of the pollution. “Poor people. They got screwed,” he said.

Every day, Jewish and Arab Israeli smugglers purchase discarded electronics from Israeli companies and scrapyards. Driving vans bearing old cables and appliances, the traders pass through Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank, where they unload their cargo

Before the Second Intifada, Palestinians from the towns mostly trekked down the dirt road that led into Israel and worked as day laborers for cash. But after dozens of Palestinian suicide bombings in the early 2000s, Israel built the security barrier and cracked down on Palestinians seeking to cross the border without permits.

At the same time, spurred by the global revolution in communications, the price of copper soared from $2,200 to $8,800 per ton. Thousands of Palestinians, lacking prized Israeli work permits, turned to sifting through scrap for the precious metal. The trade now supports a majority of the area’s households, according to Garb.

Every day, Jewish and Arab Israeli smugglers purchase discarded electronics from Israeli companies and scrapyards. Driving vans bearing old cables and appliances, the traders pass through Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank, where they unload their cargo.

In Beit Awwa, hundreds of shopkeepers attend a nightly scrap auction. Dozens of trucks stand by, piled high with old appliances. Some are sold to shopkeepers, who hope to refurbish the goods and turn a profit. The rest are sent to junkyards, where Palestinians tear away plastic with hammers, seeking to squeeze out every gram of precious metal.

The average day laborer in Hebron brings home around NIS 110 per day, according to PA figures. But working in waste is far more lucrative: a worker who dismantles and resells old Israeli goods can make between NIS 200 and NIS 250 — salaries comparable to working in Israel.

The big money, however, lies in burning. Old electronic cables are dirt cheap, but searing away their plastic coating for the copper within can earn an ordinary laborer around NIS 500 for a day’s work, those familiar with the trade say.

Some Palestinians purchase cables themselves and burn them. Others work as well-oiled teams — one Palestinian security official called them “organized gangs” — who split the proceeds. Still others work for a single boss, burning his cables for a small share of the loot.

“Our problem is that the laws are simply not enforced. The names of those who burn are well-known, but we live in a state of lawlessness,” said Tamer Abu Jhaisheh, the co-owner of Safa Recycling, a factory in Idhna that aims to cleanly recycle cables into copper.

Idhna mayor Muammar Tmeize during an interview in his municipal office on November 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Safa’s warehouse is full of impressive, expensive machinery — but the facility struggles to compete with the burners. Israeli scrapyards prefer working with smugglers, who pay no taxes and leave no paper trail at Israeli checkpoints, Abu Jhaisheh said.

‘No stable system’

The burns lead to raging fires and towering pillars of smoke visible for miles around. But the polluters are rarely caught, as their activities fall between the cracks of different regimes in the West Bank.

Since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, the West Bank has been divided into three administrative regions. Israel withdrew from major Palestinian cities and towns in Areas A and B, allowing the Palestinian Authority to assume some responsibility.

In Area C, which comprises 60 percent of the West Bank, Israel maintained direct control. But Israeli law enforcement mainly focuses on settlements and Palestinian police cannot freely enter, meaning neither holds sway in Palestinian communities.

Palestinian burners often live in PA-administered areas, but when they want to sear the plastic off a haul of freshly smuggled cables, they head to Area C to carry out the burn. Palestinian police cannot pursue them without Israeli approval.

“These gangs have learned to exploit the fact that our security forces and police cannot go there without coordination with Israel. Moreover, there’s no knowing how long that will take, there’s no stable system — it could be quick or slow or even a refusal,” said Hebron deputy governor Khaled Dodin.

Under the Oslo system, local Palestinian officials must first call the PA regional coordination unit, which then calls Israeli authorities, who examine the request and grant permission. By the time PA police or the Israeli army arrive — hours or even days later — the polluters are long gone, leaving behind nothing but ash and dying embers.

In both Jerusalem and Ramallah, officials say that Israel must prevent the truckloads of electronic scrap from entering the West Bank in the first place. The waste mostly enters the territory through Israeli checkpoints, under the watchful gaze of Israeli soldiers.

“It’s against international law. It’s against Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power. We will not become a dumping ground for hazardous Israeli waste,” said a Palestinian Authority environmental regulator, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.

Idhna, a town in the hills west of Hebron that specializes in dealing with Israeli scrap (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Israeli regulators have pledged for years to crack down on trucks carrying waste and slap sanctions against junkyards that do business with the smugglers. But Dancziger, the former ministry official, warned that tighter enforcement alone was unlikely to end the smuggling.

“As long as the economic motivation isn’t removed, you’ll be left chasing your own tail,” Dancziger said.

Palestinians living in the towns say ending the waste shipments entirely would mean the destruction of their livelihoods. Many of the scrapyards do not engage in burning and make good money by dismantling or refurbishing Israeli electronic waste.

‘We have little land left for agriculture, and what land and water we have is contaminated. The scrap industry creates some prosperity and self-reliance.’

“This sector needs to be properly regulated, not eliminated. We’re speaking about an industry that employs tens of thousands of people across the West Bank,” said Abu Jheisha, the owner of the Safa recycling facility.

The Palestinian Authority regulator dismissed concerns that multitudes of Palestinians would be out of work if the trade suddenly screeched to a halt.

“The people of these villages once made a living in agriculture. It’s not a big deal — once this dangerous waste is gone, people will return to cultivating their land. No one will die of starvation,” the official said.

But Palestinians in the poor, rural towns criticized that attitude as detached. When the security barrier swept past the villages, they say, it also cut off land once cultivated by Palestinian farmers, making scrap the only game in town.

“We have little land left for agriculture, and what land and water we have is contaminated. The scrap industry creates some prosperity and self-reliance. Do they want us to return to the Stone Age?” asked Abu Jheisha.

A thwarted success story

In 2017, Palestinians, Israelis and international donors devised an ambitious project that stilled the burning for a few months, while allowing locals to still prosper from dismantling electronic waste.

The idea was simple: instead of seeking to eliminate the waste trade, authorities would transition the community to recycling. Garb, the environmentalist, designed the effort alongside Palestinian local leaders; Israeli authorities acquiesced.

With Swedish funding, mayors drafted dozens of local first responders to enforce a ban on burning. They established a direct line of communication with the Israeli army — bypassing the PA’s coordination bureaucracy — allowing them to apprehend burners in minutes. Subsidies were provided to allow burners to recycle their cables instead, while teams cleaned up toxic burn sites.

A boy stands near a rubbish burn on a hillside facing a school in Beit Awwa on Nov. 26, 2017. (Tamir Kalifa)

The project paid off: for one memorable spring, the skies cleared of smoke even as people kept their jobs in the scrapyards. Both Idhna Mayor Tmeize and Abdullah Sweity, the mayor of Beit Awwa at the time, began to hope that the future would be a little brighter.

“We were catching the burners, seizing their cables. We turned them over to the police, with evidence proving their crimes, and saw some prosecuted,” Sweity said.

This is a war against every living thing. Jews and Palestinians have to cooperate, and if we let the political issue get in the way, we’ll just keep dying

Sweity is an unlikely figure to push for direct contact with Israel’s military government. He served several years in Israeli prison during the First Intifada for participating in violent clashes with soldiers and says there can never be true peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

But on the burnings, Sweity said: “This is a war against every living thing. Jews and Palestinians have to cooperate, and if we let the political issue get in the way, we’ll just keep dying.”

All sides agree that the initiative successfully stopped the pollution. The Swedish development agency pledged another $3 million to expand the program and give the local Palestinian rapid-response teams additional resources. With the burning brought to halt, thousands of tons of toxic-ridden soil would be sent to an Israeli facility in Ramat Hovav to be treated.

But the plan collapsed following political squabbles between the PA, Israel and the local mayors, according to former officials and observers familiar with the project.

The PA’s Environmental Quality Authority insisted that the millions in aid be funneled through its coffers. Sweity and Tmeize fired back that if the cash went to Ramallah rather than to the towns, rampant corruption would ensure they never saw a shekel.

During talks with the Israelis, the PA demanded that Israel sign an international convention stating the waste was crossing the borders of a neighboring state. Israel, which does not recognize a Palestinian state, refused.

“If Israel had gone along with this, it would have been a recognition of Palestine in a way we haven’t seen. And the PA, in their dealings with this, were not willing to make informal or tacit agreements that could allow this to go ahead without it,” said Johan Schaar, a former Swedish development official who managed the project.

Israeli environmentalist Yaakov Garb, left, and then-Beit Awwa mayor Abdullah Sweity spot a nearby e-waste burn from town hall on Nov. 26, 2017 (Tamir Kalifa)

According to Sweity, this stance extended even to tiny details, such as whether the receipts for the soil would say “the State of Palestine” or “the Palestinian Authority” after it was sent to Israel.

Others familiar with the project say that Ramallah’s true concerns lay elsewhere. Under the Oslo Accords, only the Palestinian Authority can deal with Israel. But the project opened a direct channel between Palestinian mayors and the Israelis, completely circumventing the PA, they said.

Garb conducted intensive shuttle diplomacy and managed to reach tentative agreements between mid-level officials. But when the deals reached higher Palestinian echelons for approval, there was deadlock.

With talks at a dead end, the Swedish government suspended their involvement. The burning soon resumed, darkening the skies over the towns.

The PA’s environmental watchdog declined to comment.

Every joint Israeli-Palestinian environmental project in the West Bank is “extraordinarily sensitive,” with “political struggles over independence, and over the appearance of independence,” said Dancziger.

In the absence of a peace process, Israel and the Palestinians are caught in a tug-of-war in which players on both sides seek to push toward their preferred solution to the conflict. Fighting shared threats inevitably falls into the maelstrom of politics, Dancziger said.

“There are countless examples of initiatives that got stuck by the Palestinians’ desire to prove their independence from Israel and by Israel’s desire to say that there’s no border, that it’s not two separate states,” Dancziger said.

‘There’s no border’

The toxic waste impacts both Palestinians and Israelis, on both sides of the West Bank barrier. Eliav resident Timna Idan hopes they can come together to fight it.

“The wall doesn’t keep anything out. There’s no border, we live right next to each other: there’s a town here with children and over there, on the other side, the same thing,” Idan said.

Ordinary Israelis and Palestinians have held meetings in Eliav to discuss their shared problem; the Palestinians had to receive special military permits to cross over.

Timna Idan, a resident of the Israeli town of Eliav, at her home on November 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

“We really felt that we were all in this together, that we had a common fate. We finished with an embrace,” said Idan.

In a phone call with The Times of Israel, Blue and White parliamentarian Alon Tal said his party chief — Defense Minister Benny Gantz — was following the matter.

“If they figure out where the waste is coming from, hammer them hard with administrative enforcement, or criminal proceedings if necessary — the problem could go away in six months,” said Tal. “This is not an issue that will last forever.”

Abdullah Sweity, the former Beit Awwa mayor, is less optimistic. After the Swedish-funded project collapsed, he publicly railed against the Palestinian Authority at town meetings and on social media.

The PA responded by freezing the municipality’s funds and arresting his brother Mohammad. An armed convoy of PA forces sought to storm the town and clashed with Beit Awwa residents. Facing mounting pressure, Sweity tendered his resignation in late 2017, just eight months after he took office.

Ramallah appointed its own mayor, a PA intelligence officer from outside Beit Awwa, to run the town. Sweity returned to his previous job as a construction worker in Israel.

“Everything here gets wrapped up in everything else. You try to do something good for your hometown. But you find yourself talking politics and borders and statehood and everything else,” reflected Sweity.

“And on those issues — there can never be an agreement. There’s no solution.”

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