Illegal and unregulated production of charcoal, in some cases on government land, is causing severe health consequences for our children. It is illegal due to the fact that the businesses are not registered and take place on land zoned for agriculture. Most disturbing is that the government and the Supreme Court don’t seem to care.

Most of us, when grilling the meat on our BBQs, have no idea what it takes to make the charcoal fuel used to achieve that perfect steak. We would be surprised to find out that our insatiable appetite to BBQ is feeding an NIS 50 million a year underground charcoal industry that is totally illegal, unregulated and terribly damaging to the environment.

The massive amounts of air pollution released into the environment during the production of the charcoal has ruined the lives of many families whose only wish was to live in the pastoral northern Sharon region.

We do know that air quality is a high priority of the Environmental Protection Ministry. One only has to recall the hullabaloo caused by the smell of chlorine in the Dan region recently. Months ago, the smell of chlorine in the streets of Tel Aviv drew dozens of vehicles specially equipped to test the air quality out on to the streets.

The sight of the white-suited scientists doing their tests was proof of the seriousness with which the issue is dealt.

But this level of care is not being applied equally.

FOR THE past five years the residents of the northern Sharon region have complained of the smell of acrid smoke and soot. They complain that their children have higher incidents of breathing disorders and that any belongings left outside their homes are covered by soot.

At 5 p.m. each day they have to bring their belongings in from outside and lock themselves in their homes so as to escape the smoke.

The ministry undertook special checks in the region. It found that the air breathed by the residents of the kibbutzim and moshavim of the northern Sharon region as well as Pardess Hanna, and even the eastern neighborhoods of Hadera, contains very high concentrations of dangerous poisons – the source of which are illegal charcoal kilns.

Not only are these kilns, located on agricultural land, pumping enormous volumes of poison into nearby towns and villages, some of the kilns are built on state land. The damage done by the noxious fumes is not limited to one geographical area. Unlike borders, fences or barriers when it comes to pollution whatever direction the wind is blowing that day so too blows the damaging smoke.

THE METHOD of creating the charcoal is cheap and archaic; keeping giant piles of tree cuttings smoldering over the course of some weeks. Due to the cheaper production costs of doing it "the old way" any business using modern methods, that reduces dramatically the pollution, is forced out of business. During the whole process poisonous gases and particles including methane and tar are released into the air. The wind then spreads this indiscriminately for kilometers around.

Two years ago, due to complaints by Regavim on behalf of the residents of Kibbutz Metzar and Mitzpe Ilan, the Environmental Protection Ministry initiated a joint operation with the civil administration to eliminate the phenomenon.

Stop work and closure orders were issued against dozens of charcoal kilns.

However, the kiln owners rushed to file multiple petitions with the Supreme Court in which they claimed that closure of the charcoal kilns would badly harm their livelihoods. Anyone brought up on good mafia movies can immediately imagine Al Capone suing the city of Chicago for closing his moonshine operation because it deprived him of his livelihood.

FOLLOWING THE petitions of the kiln owners, the Supreme Court issued prevention orders against the closure of the kilns and since then they have been operating at full capacity. Meanwhile the air pollution continues, and with it the harm to the quality of life and health of the area’s residents.

Last week, in a follow-up suit by Regavim on behalf of the residents of the various kibbutzim and moshavim in the northern Sharon region, in conjunction with the towns of Hadera and Pardess Hanna, the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the closure of the charcoal kilns.

It sounds like it should be a clear-cut case of the residents’ health and welfare versus the livelihood of the owners of an illegal industry operating on agricultural and state-owned lands, and thus an easy decision for the Supreme Court in favor of the residents. But that is not the case.

The kilns are located in northern Samaria (the West Bank) and their owners are local Arab residents. As such, in our post-Zionist world, their livelihood, apparently, is of more importance than the health of thousands of residents affected by the air pollution, not to mention the detrimental affect of noxious fumes on the charcoal kiln workers themselves and the residents of northern Samaria.

Leading the defense for the owners of the illegal kilns was none other than Michael Sfard, the attorney of choice for so-called human rights organizations such as B’tselem, Peace Now and Yesh Din.

Naftali Balanson, head of research at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based organization that reviews the work of human rights organizations, commented: “Michael Sfard is at the center of the NGO industry that exploits the rhetoric of human rights in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that the government needs to explain to the charcoal makers why they would want them closed and at the same time explain to Regavim their intentions. What makes it worse is the fact that the enforcement of environmental laws is not just lax or non-existent due to the fact that it is occurring in the West Bank. Our organization has also exposed serious environmental damage to the land in the Negev due to illegal gas stations in Beduin towns and damage to the Mount Meron Nature Reserve in the Gallil due to illegal building in the nature reserve itself.

We can all imagine that had the polluters been Jews, the full force of the law would have been used to close down such nefarious and illegal behavior immediately.

But when it comes to the enforcement of environmental laws against Arabs, it seems equal enforcement of the law is not to be assumed.

The writer works for Regavim, an independent professional research institute and policy-planning think tank.

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