Court addresses fumes, moving Palestinians

Palestinians claim wood-burning operations crucial for livelihood, settlers complain of resulting environmental, health damage.

Palestinian farmer, West Bank_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinian farmer, West Bank_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The High Court of Justice held another hearing Monday in which settlers say Palestinians around Wadi Ara are harming them with the fumes created through coal production, while the Palestinians say that the settlers are just trying to force them off their land.
The Palestinians in the area, located in Area C of the West Bank (under full Israeli control under the Oslo Accords), burn large woodpiles in order to produce coal. According to human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, the community has been working in this type of coal production for the last 150 years, and rely on it for their livelihood. Nearby settler communities, on the other hand, claim that the wood-burning processes damage not only the environment but also the health of those living in the area. The issue has been the subject of a series of court hearings.
About 18 months ago, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria, which has jurisdiction over the West Bank and is part of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit, issued orders to destroy any residential and other structures in the area, including those used in the wood-burning operations.
At the time Sfard told The Jerusalem Post that COGAT made no attempt to justify the demolition orders based on environmental concerns or to explain the basis for the order at all.
Thirty residents filed a petition, represented by Sfard and other attorneys, to block the demolition orders.
Sfard said the court criticized the demolition orders from the start, to the point that the civil administration almost immediately abandoned its initial demolition plans.
However, Regavim, an organization which monitors Palestinian construction and other issues in the West Bank, claimed that approximately four months ago the court did issue an order calling for the cessation of the coal-producing operations and the confiscation of the wood, on the basis of complaints that the operations were causing environmental damage and even physical harm to settlers nearby.
According to Sfard, this was a conditional order that, at most, applied to the state, and was not an order requiring immediate or final action. He noted that the environmental argument was questionable, as the same wood-burning operations are continuing, regardless of this case, in Area B (Israeli security, Palestinian Authority civil control) of the West Bank, which Israel has no power to curb.
The lawyer noted that as a result, even if the Area C wood-burning operations were halted, it would not solve any alleged environmental problem or eliminate complaints of fumes impacting settlers in the area.
Sfard said this could raise questions about the ultimate purpose of the legal actions against the Palestinians in the area, in light of the fact that an end to the wood-burning operations could end their livelihood and force them to relocate.
Nevertheless, to address the environmental problems, Sfard said that the Palestinians in the area offered to meet with the environmental authorities and to invest funds for altering the coalproducing process to be ecologically sound.
Regavim, along with other organizations representing the settlers at the hearing, complained that the Palestinians had violated the court order by continuing their wood-burning operations.
Settler representatives said the court’s conduct in not immediately ending the coal production was highly problematic because the woodburning operations continued to expose local children to the fumes. They also complained that the fumes had ruined Simhat Torah celebrations, as they made outdoor dancing impossible.
Sfard responded that the state had generally refused overtures to learn about resolving any of the environmental issues at play.
The state refused to meet with him, noted Sfard, until approximately two months ago, when the court ordered the state to discuss the environmental considerations.
While the state presented a partial list of issues needing to be addressed, Sfard said that the state refused to commit to any “endgame” where the Palestinians could continue their operations and remain on their land if they fulfilled a concrete checklist of environmental changes.
The state responded by saying that it had been difficult to produce such a foolproof commitment.
According to the state, this specific type of wood-burning operation is highly unusual for Israel and there is no real system set up to review or enforce regulations regarding such activities.
Thus, the state preferred to address issues on a case-by-case basis as matters developed and the consequences of different environmental impacts became clearer.
Sfard in turn claimed that the Palestinians could not be expected to invest money in improving their operations without knowing beforehand that they could eventually gain approval from the environmental authorities.
The court has yet to render a decision.