Occupation pollutes: Israel uses the West Bank to treat toxic waste

A PALESTINIAN collects garbage in the West Bank. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A PALESTINIAN collects garbage in the West Bank.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Waste treatment plants are a problem – an odor problem, an image problem and a pollution problem, which is why although everyone supports waste treatment and recycling, you won’t find anyone who would welcome a sewage processing facility or toxic waste treatment plant in their backyard.
While concerns are understandable, no modern country can avoid treating waste. Israel has waste processing plants in Neot Hovav in the Negev Desert, in the Haifa Bay, and a few other sites across the country. But they are no longer adequate as the amount of waste and hazardous materials keeps growing and, with it, the need to find new sites for waste treatment.
This problem is not unique to Israel. It exists in every country where citizens have political power and influence over what goes on in their communities and environment. Democratic societies strive to find a balance between the need to treat waste and the effort to keep treatment sites as far as possible from populated areas. This is the situation in Israel, inside the Green Line, and it is not unlike that in many other developed nations in the world.
Yet unlike those nations, and unlike the political reality inside its own territory, Israel has taken the liberty of operating in vast areas outside its sovereign borders, on land it occupied more than 50 years ago. In these areas, Israel denies residents their political rights and any chance to influence decisions that impact their lives, their lands, or even the pollution of their environment.
Israel has hit upon a magic solution for its waste treatment problem. Exploiting its status as an occupying power, and the fact that Palestinian residents are not even asked and cannot object, it allowed the establishment of at least 15 plants in the West Bank that process waste produced in Israel. Six process hazardous waste. Various types of waste – including sewage, infectious medical waste, used oils and solvents, metals, used batteries, electronics industry byproducts and more – are all transported for treatment in these plants with state approval.
Yet while Israel treats processing plants in the West Bank as part of its own waste treatment system, it takes advantage of the fact that the West Bank is not its sovereign territory to institute less stringent environmental regulations there than those it put in place in Israel proper. In doing so, not only is Israel exploiting the West Bank for its exclusive needs, it is exposing the Palestinians and their environment to hazards and pollutants to which it would never dare expose its own citizens living inside the Green Line.
Shoni Goldberg, director of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Jerusalem District, which covers most of the West Bank, admitted at a conference held at Ariel University in June 2017 that Israel takes advantage of the regulatory gap it created. As he put it, “there is a vacuum in this field, and environmental offenses related to air pollution cannot be made subject to enforcement. It sounds absurd, but that’s the legal situation. I haven’t been able to carry out enforcement with respect to air quality in the West Bank for almost a decade.”
In addition, and unlike similar facilities operating inside Israel, facilities in the West Bank are not required to report how much waste they transport, their emissions, or the measures they put in place to minimize the potential environmental and health risks to local residents. This situation completely precludes any sort of meaningful oversight.
This Israeli policy is not just morally intolerable, it is also illegal. The nations of the world have already agreed that an occupying country cannot exploit occupied territory for its own needs. World nations have also agreed that any transfer of hazardous waste beyond the borders of the country that produced it requires informed consent from the receiving country. However, transferring waste to the West Bank is an even graver matter than transferring it to a third-party sovereign country. The three million Palestinians living in the West Bank are subject to a regime of military occupation, which foists onto them the treatment of waste that is not of their making, in their territory, and exposes them to a host of potential hazards.
What’s described here is part of a system. Like many other measures Israel implements to advance the policy of dispossession and exploitation that has been going on for more than 50 years – establishing settlements, building the Separation Barrier inside the West Bank, and setting up checkpoints – also when it comes to waste treatment, Israeli interests always come first.
Palestinians always have to pay the price for decisions made without their input. The human rights violations inherent to the occupation – including the transfer of waste produced inside the Green Line to the West Bank – will end only when the occupation does.
The author works as a researcher at B’Tselem and wrote the report “Made in Israel.”