The claustrophobic alleyways of Shuafat refugee campare thick with a scum of decaying produce, charred packaging, and spent rubber bullets fired by invading Israeli soldiers.
“When my family from Nablus come to visit, I’m ashamed,” said housewife and camp resident Samara, 39, gesturing up an alley clogged with broken pallets and rotting refrigerator foam. “It’s miserable, it’s dirty, and there’s sewage flooding the streets.”
Wholly encircled by the Israeli apartheid wall, Shuafat has the dubious distinction of being the only Palestinian refugee camp in Israeli-administered territory. “The camp is under Israeli control in name only – without any control,” Mohammed Muhareq, a project manager in a Shuafat community centre, told Palestine Monitor. “This is not area A, B or C, it’s area X,” he said referring to the system which carves up the West Bank under different degrees of Israeli occupation.
In practice, this means the Palestinian Authority can’t work to improve the quality of life in Shuafat, and the Israelis won’t. “Most of the people here pay tax to Israel, and what do they get back?” Mohammed asked. “Zero. Look around you – could you live here?”
Shuafat was created in 1964, as refugees displaced from their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war were forcibly moved again from their new homes in Jerusalem’s Old City. Evicted from the Old City as an infant, 50-year-old Majdared has lived in the camp for half a century. How has she seen the camp change? “It’s more crowded, it’s less organized, it’s dirtier,” she said.
Stats on Shuafat’s exponential growth are coloured by political intent. The official population figure is 25,000, while Shuafat residents claim there are around 60,000 people living in the cramped confines of the camp. Even the lower figure gives a population density of some 125,000 people per km2. A breakneck birth-rate is exacerbated by the arrival of poor non-refugees in Shuafat, often following the destruction of homes or the loss of livelihood elsewhere in Jerusalem.
The camp suffers from violent incursions by the Israeli forces, rampant unemployment and high crime rates, as drug-dealers proliferate in lawless territory the Israeli police are too scared to enter. In such circumstances, a prosaic municipal issue such as waste collection rapidly becomes an unmanageable task.
Camp services are theoretically administered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. But the UNRWA team responsible for collecting rubbish is unable to cope with the roughly 30 tonnes of solid waste spat out by the camp each day.
Majdared says disputes over garbage often boil over into violent disputes between neighbours, while per an EU-sponsored report by NGO CESVI, the situation is worsened by neighbouring communities tossing their garbage into the camp.
Despite environmental education efforts by community leaders, in the absence of a full refuse collection system then trash burning remains commonplace. And under the Jerusalem Municipality’s Plan 13900, the slopes beside the camp will become a formal landfill, choking Shuafat still further.
Camp doctor Salim Anati has seen the impact of these conditions on the elderly people, children and pregnant women who spend their days hanging around in Shuafat and breathing its fumes, suffering in badly-ventilated, over-crowded housing. He says that alongside widespread psychological problems, his patients suffer from worms, bacterial infections, tropical diseases and skin infections as a result of their polluted environment.
Jerusalem City Hall’s near-total refusal to grant planning permissions in Shuafat has led to widespread unlicensed construction, which leads in turn to a nasty catch-22. As former Municipal Council member Meir Margalit has admitted, his colleagues now refuse to introduce proper infrastructure, on the grounds that the camp is too dense with illegal building work for plans to be drawn up.
The waste trade
In the hills around the southern West Bank town of Idna, the leaves of olive trees are blackened with soot.
“You can imagine the smoke, what it does to the plants,” said Dr. Akram Amro, standing on the scorched lip of a natural cave. Once used as a dovecote, it is now a popular site for illegal waste burning. He tuts, and snaps a picture of the damage. “Nothing can grow here. We are ruining the spring waters with carcinogenic heavy metals.”
This is not just household refuse. Idna is a town whose economy is built on waste: driving down the main street, you pass wrecking yard after wrecking yard, where teenage boys swarm over heaps of electrical debris.
Once a farming community, Idna’s agricultural land has been torn apart by the apartheid wall. Wells are blocked off, homes have been destroyed, and fields are lost beyond its stark slabs of concrete and coiled razor wire.
So now the town-folk trade in trash. There are over 50 major, legal workshops in the village, plus smaller-scale satellite operations running out of private homes – often run by women.
According to Akram, who works with local campaign group the Green Land Society for Health Development (GLSHD), 98% of the filthy white goods and buckled military hardware piled along the town’s main strip are trucked over from Israel, at a rate of up to 500 tonnes each day. They are stripped of wiring, cables and recoverable electronics, their shells are torched on common land, and valuable minerals are sifted from the ash.
But with Palestinian buyers virtually non-existent, when selling their wares the dealers of Idna are forced to go via middlemen – particularly since the global market crash of 2008. Where Palestinians cannot freely enter Israel to trade, brokers in the nearby illegal settlement of Telem reap the rewards of tax-free trade across the Green Line with Israeli businesses.
“The hard work is in the West Bank, the trash is in the West Bank, the burning is in the West Bank,” Akram said, his disgust evident. “And the raw materials go back to Israel in an Israeli vehicle for a nice price.”
It is Idna’s arable land ravaged by illegal burning, and Idna’s young people suffering high cancer rates, miscarriages and irrevocable damage to their “immune, respiratory, reproductive, and renal systems,” according to local doctor Saadi Al-Rajoub of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. Al-Rajoub told Palestine Monitor he treats 30 individuals with electronic waste-related conditions each day in his Idna clinic.
Shuafat and Idna are filthy microcosms of problems endemic across occupied Palestine. As Akram says, settlers can “make profit from the occupation”, while simultaneously polluting the farmland and aquifers of the occupied West Bank with toxic waste. In the Jordan Valley and elsewhere, Israel operates massive landfills on land illegally seized from Palestinians, evicting Bedouin and indigenous people in the process.
Businesses whose dumping practices are banned in Israel are free to ditch asbestos, pesticide and untreated medical waste in the West Bank. Palestinian middlemen are also complicit in cut-price, illegal dumping, covertly ferrying Israeli garbage over the Green Line.
Imad Atrash of the Palestine Wildlife Society believes that rampant private waste dumping by Palestinians is also a product of Israeli policy. “The occupation never let us think about the protection of nature and the environment,” he told Palestine Monitor in a solar-panel plastered office in Beit Sahour.
Citing poor education and lack of infrastructure, he notes that people do not have the time or money to traverse multiple checkpoints to responsibly dispose of garbage. Moreover, much trash dumping and burning takes place in the two-thirds of the West Bank known as Area C. This land is under direct Israeli military control, meaning Palestinian enforcement officers have no jurisdiction there, giving fly-tippers a free hand.
No law and no tools
In both Shuafat and West Bank, environmentalists must fight simultaneously on multiple fronts, as Palestinian garbage mingles with Israeli waste. Progress, campaigners on both sides of the wall admit, is slow.
In Idna, the patriarch of one wrecking yard approached Akram and his colleagues, demanding to know why his power has been cut off. As Akram will explain, this is an attempt at “selective enforcement” on behalf of the local authority, encouraging the town’s traders to meet greener standards by imposing sanctions in Area A rather than hopelessly pursuing them into Area C.
“But the main focus is education,” Akram said. “Health and safety, environmental issues, groundwater… people don’t talk this language, they don’t want to know.” By visiting schools and sending researchers door-to-door in the community, the GLSHD hopes to show people the link between their cowboy trash burning and the “black, black water” pooling in their rooftop collection tanks.
In Shuafat, Italian NGO CESVI is bringing in a similar programme, working with a team of local volunteers. “There’s no law and no tools to enforce it, so has to be owned by community,” said CESVI field worker Francis Gharfeh.
“People here do want to solve this problem,” said one of CESVI’s protégés, 24-year-old Jumana. “They buy plants to make the space beautiful,” she continued. “They decorate the walls, and they collect garbage when they have a chance.”
Locals do say the standard of hygiene in the camp has improved in the last year or so, though this seems more an indication of how foul its streets were before. Away from the main drag and the UN/NGO quarter, acrid smoke still curls around every other corner.
The real problem is not education but a lack of basic services. “It’s obvious,” said camp resident Ezbadir, leaning on the shoemaker’s last in his shop doorway. “If we had collection spots, of course we’d use them, like people do in 'modern’ Jerusalem.”
CESVI is working with the UN and other agencies to beef up the camp’s collection system, but this project will take several red tape-choked years to come to fruition. And in the meantime, the camp’s population will continue to boom.
Community centre worker Mohammed is keen to separate “the local, community, environmental issue” from the “political issue” of the camp’s marginalized status. But this does not seem possible, any more than GLSHD’s school visits and posters can combat an economic system which allows Israeli settlers to strip wealth from waste and dump the remnants on Palestinian soil.
Dr. Salim is similarly fatalistic. “The occupation is the most serious problem we face,” he said. “But it’s a fact that the wall is separating us, and we have to deal with it ourselves.” Again, it is hard to imagine any meaningful change in the camp without a change in the immutable facts of the occupation.
Shop-owner Ezbadir’s use of the phrase “modern Jerusalem” is telling. Separated by only a few metres, the airy boulevards of the Israeli metropolis and the dank warren of its Palestinian dumping ground belong to two different worlds.