Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Idhna, the garbage dump for Israeli electronic-waste

By F.F. Dawkins - August 26, 2019
Section: [Main News] [IN PICTURES] [Features]
Tags: [waste]

It is summer in Palestine; and while driving through the West Bank, from Ramallah to Bethlehem or Hebron, a warm, pleasant summer breeze blows through the open window of the shared taxi. Only the constant, penetrating smell of burned rubber and plastic, mingles with the illusion of a placid summer day in the West Bank.

The origin of this biting stench can be traced to illegal burning sites adjacent to the road, which are a reminder of an unsolved and visible problem in Palestine; the illegal burning of hazardous waste.

How the consequences of illegal burning of hazardous waste affects the local population and nature, can be seen in the Palestinian city Idhna. Located 13 km west of Hebron, Idhna has been, with its fertile soil, a flourishing agricultural region. Although, agriculture is still the most prominent economic factor in Idhna, for the last 15 years the city served, alongside, Beit Aawwa, Deir Samet and Al Kum, villages from the so-called “West-Line”, as a hotspot for recycling Israeli and Palestinian electronic-waste.

School of Idhna in the midst of the e-waste recycling sector

Although the workshops in Idhna are processing both Palestinian and Israeli waste, the majority of the e-products stems from Israel. Namely 40,000 tons of Israeli e-waste is processed annually, by 380 businesses in the villages of the West-Line, providing an income for over 1000 people. Idhna alone imports 4,500 tons of e-waste each month, making the e-waste recycling sector one of the most significant economic driving factors of the town.

The majority of the workshops are dismantling e-waste, such as air conditioners, cables, refrigerators or tv’s, in order to sell the extracted by-products such as copper. Nowadays, the dismantling is done either manually, which is highly dangerous if the material is flammable, or by specific machines.

Nevertheless, before new technologies made the dismantling of e-waste easier, the practice of burning e-waste to extract the valuable metals was, and still is, a big problem in Idhna.

Although the Palestinian authorities, Israeli forces and the municipality of Idhna, have tried to prevent these practices, black spots of burned grass on the fields and hills surrounding the city reveal the actual frequency of this recycling method.

Arriving in the city, the mayor of Idhna, Dr Mahmud Slaimieh introduced Palestine Monitor to the emerging formal e-waste sector, until he discovered black smoke in the sky, originating from burning e-waste materials. After a ten minute ride out of the city to the burn site, located in Area C adjacent to the wall, three hooded figures stood in the dense smoke of the cables they were burning. 

Seeing the mayor, the men immediately began extinguishing the fire with water and throwing the still-burning materials into their cars.

“This burning causes severe damage to nature,” Slaimieh told Palestine Monitor. “The particles which are set free by the fire are everywhere in the city, inhaled by humans and destroying the harvest.” 

“Only last night I received a phone call from a family, saying that their children cannot breathe. It infects the olive trees and other agriculture products, as the metal particles stick to the plants,” Slaimieh said angrily.

The burning cables are extinguished with water

A recent study investigating the effect of the air pollution caused by e-waste burning on the human DNA and chromosome breaks in Idhna, supports this claim. Dr Mazin Qumsiyeh, professor for genetics and molecular and cellular biology at Bethlehem University, found that the air pollution has led to DNA damage of the villagers and e-waste recycling workers. 

“The air pollution of burning e-waste has a severely harmful impact on health,” Qumsiyeh explained. “The DNA changes can lead to cancer, congenital disabilities and infertility. Our study suggests mitigating the impact fast.”

Lack of law enforcement 

Although the transboundary movement of hazardous waste is regulated by the international Basel Convention, which was ratified by Israel and Palestine, and the Oslo Accords, thousands of tons of highly problematic waste crosses the border from Israel into Palestine every day.

Furthermore, the import of such waste is illegal under Palestinian national law, and the Israeli domestic law prohibits the export of hazardous waste without permission.

Despite this, the precise legislative regulation of the movement of hazardous waste, the reality on the ground shows an apparent lack of law enforcement.

Jasser Abu Shanab, from the Palestinian Environment Quality of Authority (EQA), illustrated the reason for the lack of enforcement. “We have no power over our borders, which makes it very difficult for us to control the illegal import of hazardous waste. We have asked Israel repeatedly to enforce controls on this issue, but yet with minimal consequences,” Shanab explained.

Another of many burning sites outside of Idhna close to the wall

According to the EQA, since the enforcement of the Basel Convention, Palestinian authorities have tracked down 51 illegal types of hazardous waste transportation, which is a small number compared to the illicit daily import of tons of hazardous waste.

Beside illegal hazardous waste export from Israel to Palestine, Israel has over the years weakened waste regulations in the West Bank. These policies, according to a report by B’Tselem, led to the development of at least 15 waste treatment facilities, of which six are processing hazardous waste in the West Bank.

Therefore, the disposal and movement of hazardous waste, whether it is clinical, electronic or industrial waste products, is a complex problem for Palestinian institutions, and nowadays often treated carelessly.

Formal E-waste sector in Idhna

However, despite the illegal burning activities, the majority of the e-waste is sent to local recycling factories or is extracted manually.

Bassam Jbara is one local workshop owner in Idhna. In his middle-sized workshop, Jbara mainly treats air conditioners and refrigerators. Like many others, Jbara receives his material from Israeli companies, which sell the e-waste to so-called Alte Zachen; people who collect the waste and bring it into the West Bank. After processing the material, Jbara sells the copper and recyclable materials back to Israel.

Jbara next to the extracted recycled material he can sell

Jbara explained how the burning not only affects the environment and population, but also his own business. “Although we don’t burn the material, we are still affected by those who burn it. First of all, we are part of the same environment; we share the water, the air and the fields. Secondly, it hurts me on an economic level, because the more fire, the more patrols and they [Israelis] start to confiscate randomly my trucks with the material,” Jbara stated. 

It is evident that as the e-waste sector has grown, it has become increasingly unregulated with limited municipal planning over the years, which has led to problematic development. Nowadays, the manual dismantling sector of e-waste is spread across the city and not placed in one location, which leads to the dismantling factories being located next to schools and sanitary facilities. However, the municipality has plans to eventually concentrate the sector in one place and enlarge the current offers for safety and protection for the workers.


The recycling workshop of Bassam Jbara

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