The Waste Bank: How Israeli waste ends up dumped in the occupied Palestinian territories

The Waste Bank: How Israeli waste ends up dumped in the occupied Palestinian territories
6 min read
08 December, 2017
In-depth: While Israel is increasing the amount of waste it produces and recycles, it is doing so at the expense of Palestinians, according to a new report.
The report draws attention to Israel's double standards over waste recycling [Ylenia Gostoli]

Driving through the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley, in the eastern occupied West Bank, lush agricultural fields dot an otherwise arid landscape - visual evidence of the region's unequal water supply distribution.

A pungent stench fills the air long before the car approaches the Compost Or factory, where thousands of tonnes of compost are produced each year from human waste.

But while the factory is located in occupied territory the international community widely regards as part of a prospective Palestinian state, the vast majority of the waste comes all the way from households within Israel's internationally recognised borders.

Like most businesses in the Palestinian Jordan Valley, agricultural or otherwise, it is Israeli-run.

A report published this week by Israeli human rights group B'Tselem titled Made in Israel: Exploiting Palestinian Land for Treatment of Israeli Waste describes how Israel has been transporting the waste produced by its citizens to the West Bank for treatment, amid a lack of transparency and unbeknownst to Palestinians living nearby, who have no say in the process.

Researchers found there at least fifteen Israeli waste treatment facilities in the West Bank processing waste mostly produced in Israel. Six of these handle hazardous waste, including medical, solvent, oil and electronic waste, which require special processes and pose more potential risks to both health and environment.

In Israel, these facilities would be subject to stricter environmental laws than apply in the West Bank. However, as the phenomenon has gone unreported so far, no studies exist about their actual environmental impact.

They were never asked and never agreed to accept hazardous waste in their own back yard. They were never even informed that this was happening

Instead, the report aims to draw attention to Israel's double standards in the issue of waste recycling and treatment.

"Palestinians in the occupied territories cannot oppose decisions made by Israel," said Adam Aloni, B'Tselem's lead researcher on the project. "They were never asked and never agreed to accept hazardous waste in their own back yard. They were never even informed that this was happening," he added.

"It seems that Israel considers transporting hazardous waste into the West Bank as transporting it into its own territory. At the same time, Israel takes advantage that the West Bank is not a sovereign territory and has left significant gaps in legislation," Aloni continued. 

The Compost Or plant can be reached by veering off the main road onto an unpaved track flanked on one side by Tovlan landfill, one of the West Bank's largest dumpsites serving Israel and the settlements. The air fills with dust each time a truck drives by with a cargo of sewage sludge - organic sediments made up of human feces - which the factory will recycle into compost.

Incoming vehicles have journeyed from sewage processing facilities in 25 municipalities across Israel.

The factory treats 60 percent of all sewage sludge produced in Israel, according to 2015 figures from Israel's Ministry of Environmental Protection. Israel recycles 65 percent of the sludge it produces, with the remaining 35 percent being processed in smaller facilities in Israel and the Golan Heights. The factory also treats sludge from the settlement of Ariel, and according to the factory's owner, David Reiner, a small percentage of it comes from a Palestinian municipality.

Israel often stipulates that Palestinian infrastructure
projects must also benefit Israeli settlements
[Ylenia Gostoli]

However, as Israel imposes restrictions on Palestinians in developing wastewater facilities, there's less sludge to be recycled in Palestinian areas in the first place.

Israel often conditions permits for Palestinian infrastructure projects on them being built for both the settlements and Palestinian areas, something the Palestinian Authority has opposed so as not to legitimise Israeli settlements.

The result is that, while human waste from Israel is being treated and recycled in the occupied territory, raw sewage is often seen running through valleys and villages in the West Bank.

While sewage sludge is not considered hazardous waste, two similar plants located inside Israel were shut in 2013 and 2014 after local residents protested about the stench they produced. B'Tselem says the sludge that was being treated there was redirected to Compost Or.

The finished product, which lies in open fields alongside mounds of untreated sludge, is sold to farmers across Israel and the West Bank.

Reiner says he doesn't like to talk politics. He lives in the nearby settlement of Masua, which like the rest of Israeli settlements in the West Bank is considered illegal under international law. Settlements and settlement industrial and agricultural areas are located in Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under Israeli control, on lands confiscated from Palestinians.

I have been living here 25 years with my family. For me, this is Israel, but anyone can come

"It's a way of life for us here, for Israelis and for Palestinians," he told The New Arab at the plant, established in 2007 on land he acquired in 2003. His business employs eight Palestinians alongside eleven Israelis from nearby villages and settlements. He said the company complies with all environmental standards, but admits the system may be open to abuse.

"There are people who can make wrong of it, or make politics. Not me, never," he said, adding shortly afterwards: "I have been living here 25 years with my family. For me, this is Israel, but anyone can come."

In 1994, Israel ratified the Basel convention, which establishes principles for overseeing waste-management at inter-state level - principles it is now violating, according to B'Tselem.

One of these principles stipulates that hazardous waste can only be exported to countries that are able to manage it environmentally, and upon written consent from the receiving country, which should be provided detailed information about the waste. Not only does this not happen because Palestinians are under occupation, but the legislative gap means companies treating waste in the West Bank are not obliged to report their environmental impact and the measures taken to mitigate it. 

This, combined with tax breaks and subsidies provided by the government to settlement businesses, B'Tselem argues, makes it more profitable to treat waste in the West Bank, where businesses often also take advantage of cheap Palestinian labour. Fear of having their work permits revoked and a lack of oversight leave plenty of space for abuse, as documented by various human and labour rights organisations including Human Rights Watch.

Israel is catching up with European countries when it comes to waste treatment - in 2015, 44 percent of waste was recycled or recovered in all EU countries combined, while Israel's rate that year was 38 percent.

While the transfer of waste to more marginalised areas with less strict environmental regulations to cut costs is a widespread phenomenon, as an occupying power Israel is directly responsible under international law for the well-being of the local Palestinian population.

"Israel is having it both ways. On the one hand, it rules through military decree [over] millions of people with no rights for half a century," B'Tselem's executive director Hagai El-Ad told members of the media at the report's launch. "At the same time we're still somehow considered a western democracy in the eyes of most of the world with all of the perks that go with that. But of course these two things do not go hand in hand."

Ylenia Gostoli is an independent Journalist based in Jerusalem. Her work was shortlisted for the Anna Lindh Mediterranean Journalist Award in 2014.

Follow her on Twitter @YleniaGostoli