An ad-hoc garbage dump in El Bireh; the official site's closure did not come as a surprise. Photo by Emil Salman
September 1, 2013
In an unusual display of environmental sensitivity, Israel's Civil Administration shuts down El Bireh's landfill; the city responds by emptying its garbage trucks around town.
Garbage cans are overflowing and emitting a nauseatingly sweet smell, and in some of them there are flames at night that shoot off embers in all directions. There are piles of smoking refuse at the sides of the roads and in the various neighborhoods. That is the look and the odor of El Bireh these days, where a garbage war is being waged.
In the days following the closure of the El Bireh landfill by the Civil Administration on August 7, the municipality trucks still collected garbage from about 800 containers around the city but tossed it into open areas and wadis at the edges of the built-up areas. Unemployed young men showed up immediately and set fire to the piles, so that it would be easier for them to remove iron and other metals from the waste.
The neighbors responded to the double nuisance by blocking the paths to the improvised dump sites with tires and rocks to make it harder for the municipality’s trucks to reach them. They found an unexpected ally: the Israel Defense Forces. Because the improvised dumping sites are near the settlement Psagot and the Beit El checkpoint, soldiers and bulldozers were sent into the El Bireh municipal area (although it is defined as Area C, which is under Israeli security and civil control) to impound the municipality’s trucks and to pour dirt on the wreaking piles, whose smoke rose and reached the homes of Psagot.
Midweek, after the soldiers had confiscated the fifth truck, garbage collection from the streets stopped (another two trucks were being repaired). In the garbage war it is waging, the El Bireh municipality expects the Palestinian Authority and residents to understand that the closing of the site is not a municipal failure, but a reflection of the broader political reality of the relations between occupier and occupied.
The Civil Administration decided that for reasons of environmental protection, the El Bireh waste-disposal site should be closed, even before the construction of a modern and safe alternative, which has been under discussion since 1999. The municipality petitioned the High Court of Justice against the closure order, through attorneys Shelly Dvir and Yuri Gai-Ron. The legal procedure and the negotiations between the parties postponed implementation of the closure by a year and a half, from January 1, 2012, to this month. The closing did not come as a surprise to the municipality, although that is the impression one gets from its press campaigns.
On February 7, the High Court justices wrote that with the consent of the parties, the site would continue to operate until August 7, and during that period the use of one of the alternatives dictated by Civil Administration experts would be arranged: transport of the garbage either to a private Palestinian dumping site in Jenin or to the one in Abu Dis, which is itself about to be closed because it is hazardous.
From the start, the El Bireh municipality claimed that it doesn’t have the money for transport and for the dumping fees, that, according to an initial calculation, would eat up about a tenth of its budget − which itself runs some NIS 60-70 million annually.
With the PA in financial distress, and its principal donors suffering financial crises of their own, it was hard for El Bireh to consider taking on this extraordinary expense. And apparently there were some people in the municipality who hoped that a miracle would postpone the decree. This has also been the most difficult period in the history of this city, in terms of administration: The decision to close the site (first announced at the end of 2011) came when the municipality and the local council were headed by elected Hamas officials. In February 2012, the PA disbanded the elected council, but it wasn’t until the end of last year that local elections were held, in which the Fatah slate won, and the new council only started to realize what was going on.
The El Bireh waste-disposal site was built in 1978 in Wadi Shikhan. It covers some 70 dunams (about 17 acres), most of it private land owned by city residents. In 1981, the settlement of Psagot was built on a summit that overlooks all of El Bireh and in some parts is only a few meters away from its eastern neighborhoods. The disposal site is situated about one kilometer northeast of the settlement. According to the interim agreements that were signed in 1995, the site is within Area C − territory that is under Israeli civil and security administration.
Since the outbreak of the second intifada, 13 years ago, the road to the site has been blocked to Palestinians by a military gate, with the IDF and the Civil Administration restricting entry to garbage trucks to a few hours a day. Fences, roadblocks, locked gates, military patrols and settlements − all have become the impassable eastern boundary of El Bireh and its residents, although much of their land is to the east of it.
The closing of the site demonstrates the bureaucratic maze created by the interim agreements between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, a situation that has in the meantime become permanent: The IDF remains the sovereign in the entire area of the West Bank, and as such it has shed responsibility for the welfare of the Palestinian residents and instead imposed it on the PA − with its consent.
The PA has the authority and ability to fulfill this responsibility only in separate enclaves that account for less that 40 percent of the West Bank. In over 60 percent, Israel maintains the civil authority to build, demolish, close or open new ecological facilities or prevent their construction. That is how Israel can order closure of a Palestinian waste-disposal site or delay the construction of a new one without having moral or budgetary responsibility for that. Even if the residents know this, for them the municipality is still the "address" at which to direct their anger.
But the Civil Administration had good reason for ordering the closing of the site, as proven by an opinion it submitted to the court on January 14, written by Einat Bronstein of the Environmental Protection Ministry. Her conclusion is unequivocal: "The site constitutes a focus for serious and continuing pollution of the environment. The site is operating without any environmental protection infrastructure and constitutes a potential of active pollution of the environment for many years, by releasing polluting gases into the air and introducing pollutants underground ..."
It turns out that the judges preferred this official opinion to an opinion brought by the petitioners, written by Daniel Morgenstern, an economic and environmental consultant. He wrote at the end of 2011 that the operation of the site should be permitted for another three years, until the opening of a properly regulated alternative.
The closure order is a testimony to the progress that the Israeli authorities have made in their environmental awareness. In its response to El Bireh’s petition, the state declared that the site built by the El Bireh municipality "is operating unlawfully and without planning arrangements." What it neglected to mention, however, is that it was constructed during a period when not a stone was moved without the knowledge and approval of the military commander − during a period when the IDF, and later the Civil Administration, were theoretically responsible for Palestinian residents’ welfare and issues such as planning and environment. Those are the authorities that permitted Psagot to bury its garbage, starting in 1982, in the unregulated site. They are also the authorities that in the early 1990s allowed the settlements in the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council to inter their garbage at a site that was operating "unlawfully." From 2003 to 2010, the Civil Administration also permitted Modi’in Illit and Givat Ze’ev to transport their refuse there.
In 2010, El Bireh buried 13,380 tons of waste at its site, as compared to 29,478 tons interred by the settlements. The settlements paid fees to the Samaria Town Association for Environmental Quality, which, starting in 2003, became the acting administrator of the site and hired the operations contractor. El Bireh municipality officials say that from the start, the site was designated for the city’s garbage, and not for the substantial amount of additional waste that was forced on it.
One of the riddles that remained unsolved during the legal discussion is related to the fact that on February 27, 2011, the Civil Administration was still suggesting an expansion of the site, although already then there was awareness of the environmental damage it was causing. It was decided at the time that a team from the Samaria Towns Association for Environmental Quality would prepare an expansion plan that would make its operation possible until the opening of the modern and environmentally friendly site, and implementation of an advanced recycling plan in the settlements. The municipality claims that the moment they expressed reservations due to the proximity of the proposed expansion to the homes of El Bireh − the threats to close the site began, and were in fact carried out.
The justices also preferred the Civil Administration’s position to that of the Towns Association, as reflected in its reply to the El Bireh petition. "The Civil Administration refrained throughout recent years from intervening in the administration of the site apparently because professional environmental groups in the Civil Administration backed the Associations’ in the administration of the site," wrote attorney Rina Avenchik, representing the association. "The reservations of the Civil Administration regarding the plan submitted by the association to continue the use of the site on a temporary basis for the El Bireh municipality and the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council, is therefore surprising ..."
Sharon Ahdut, spokesman of the Towns Association, told Haaretz that "in our opinion, too, the site is not environmental (especially with regard to polluting ground water), but we claimed that as long as the Palestinians have no better alternative, it should continue to operate, while it is rehabilitated with Israeli funding (which could have been increased), since El Bireh didn’t have money to pay for the interment. Rehabilitation after the cessation of that process can and should be done with external funding. We sent a proposal to the head of the Civil Administration to build a facility for sorting the waste and treating it using the MBT (mechanical-biological treatment) method − anaerobic + aerobic digestion in closed containers to produce energy and compost [a German method] that can be built at the site itself."
According to the association’s inspections, the site in Jenin that the Civil Administration dictated as an alternative for El Bireh’s waste is neglected in terms of environmental operation. Like the municipality, the association thinks that transportation to that site would itself not be environmentally friendly "in terms of the energy cost of the transportation and in terms of the dispersal of pollutants."
In the meantime, the garbage is rolling around in the streets of El Bireh. One night firefighters were summoned: In their frustration, supermarket employees had set fire to the contents of the overflowing garbage container and didn’t notice that it was standing directly beneath a high-tension wire. One of the municipality employees shouted over the phone at the person responsible: "You could have incinerated not only the container but the entire city."
The spokesman for the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories responded to an inquiry from Haaretz with the following statement: "In protest of the High Court ruling and the closure of the site that operated illegally, and without the required permits, for many years, the Palestinians began to burn their own garbage there, thus exacerbating the environmental damage. This hurts both the Palestinian and Jewish populations in the area. In light of this, the Civil Administration has been active in conducting talks and meeting with PA officials and representatives of the El Bireh municipality, in an attempt to come to an arrangement and to an end to the protests, and also in enforcing the regulations. The latter includes impounding various equipment as well, including four garbage trucks."