Israeli settlements and industrial factories sit on the hilltops, looming over the quaint Palestinian homes in the Salfit district. Nestled between Ramallah and Nablus, settlements out number Palestinian villages in Salfit. In most areas, contaminated water and sewage can be seen flowing through the Matwi valley.
Toxic waste, sewage sludge streams, and general garbage dumping by Israel in the West Bank has been happening for decades. Ever since the first settlements were built after the illegal occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Israel has failed to properly manage settlement waste – including dangerous waste from industrial zones.
And Palestinians are paying for it with their lives.
“Every day we learn that someone we know has a disease.” Ammar Barakat, 36, spoke of his family’s life in the village of Burqin, one of the most affected villages in Salfit. His home is just meters away from the stream of cocktailed waste coming from the neighbouring Israeli industrial settlement, Barkan.
Barakat’s brother passed away two years ago from cancer that was discovered too late. He claims that at least 80 people in his village – which has a population of roughly 4,500 – have some form of cancer.
Out on his balcony, with the faint smell of sewage wafting along each of his playful kids, Barakat said with a straight face, “Really, we are living in hell.”
Ammar Barakat and one of his sons sitting on his balcony near the Israeli industrial settlement, Barkan
The only hospital in Salfit
With only 50 beds and 10 resident doctors, the Salfit government hospital serves close to 150,000 Salfit residents. It is packed to the brim almost constantly. Most patients have ailments that can be directly or indirectly linked to the Israeli industrial settlements in the area.
Nidal Tarsha, 26, and Abdulrahman Tamimi, 26, are two resident doctors from the Salfit branch. Working anywhere between 22-32 shifts per month – which usually last well over 12 hours – these young doctors are exhausted. Downing energy drinks to celebrate the rare occasion of having a night off, and wanting to be alert for every minute of it, Tarsha and Abdulraham tell Palestine Monitor some of their daily observations while on the job.
“We see many guys coming in recently with cancer… which is really rare to happen in the young age, 20 to 25,” Tarsha explained. The types of cancers he sees vary from lung to bone, but each case is aggressive. His patients typically come in when it’s too late. “They live for three months after their diagnosis and they die. They just die. They don’t come at the early stages.”
In comparing the health of young people from Salfit with other areas in the West Bank, Tamimi claimed that one or two out of every 10 patients he sees has an illness that can be linked to existence of the Barkan industrial settlement. “The guys from these particular villages [in Salfit] have the same characteristics, the same diseases. You can relate that there is some problem over there.”
Many patients that come to the Salfit hospital are workers in Israeli industrial factories. Whether it be for cancer or for work-related injuries, they’re not coming in to get better, Tarsha explained. Most often he sees people coming in just to get a hospital-issued sick leave report so they can quickly return back to work.
“Because they don’t have any work in the West Bank, they just don’t care about their situation, their injuries.” Tarsha said that Palestinians working for Israeli factories only get three days of sick leave. If they don’t return to work after this allotted time with proof of their sickness, they simply get fired.
The Salfit general hospital usually serves entire families at a time. The two doctors correlated the contaminated water in the area with the spread of infectious diseases, most often contracted through children since their immune systems are weaker.
The situation is worsened when the head of the family works in an Israeli factory and can’t take time off, so untreated illnesses fester and spread faster as the family has to wait until the weekend to be taken to a physician.
Israeli factories on the hilltops of the Barkan industrial settlement
Changing genetic makeup
Current reports on the dangers of living near Israeli industrial zones focus on analyzing the types of toxic wastes factories and settlements emit and only list the potential health risks. Almost no statistical evidence exists to support the claims made by witnesses such as doctors or villagers.
Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a professor of genetics and molecular and cellular biology at Bethlehem University, published the first academic study on the effects of industrial settlement waste on Palestinians living in Burqin as well as in Idhna, Hebron district.
After collecting blood samples from a control group and a test group from the affected areas, Qumsiyeh and some grad students searched each cell for chromosome breaks or damages to the DNA. The study found a significant number of chromosomal breaks in the cells of residents near industrial zones as compared to the control group.
“The evidence is overwhelming that this cannot be by chance alone that there is a difference between those two samples,” Qumsiyeh told Palestine Monitor. “This is a highly significant finding that indicates that the presence of this industrial settlement is the one causing these damages.”
It takes a while for cells to replicate, Qumsiyeh explained, so sometimes the effects can take years to manifest, but DNA damage or chromosomal breaks increase the chance of infertility, congenital birth defects, and cancer.
Qumsiyeh added that the insults to genetic makeup were found not only in industrial workers, but normal residents living in Burqin and Idhna. This means that the toxic waste is polluting the air and water in these areas, affecting anyone that is simply living near waste sites.
As a prominent human rights activist, Qumsiyeh hopes to use his scientific research to bring justice to Palestinians. “This can be an important tool to challenge Israel in the international courts.”
But for the residents of Burqin, like Barakat and his family, all they ask for is some sort of immediate solution – even if it’s temporary.
After speaking seriously about his household woes with Israeli waste, Barakat looked tired. “Most Palestinians think about freedom from the occupation. All I ask for is fresh air. Until then, I can’t think about anything,” he said incredulously.
Lead photo: An underground pipe, constructed by the people of Burqin, conceals the sewage stream for only a couple of kilometers. It opens back up into the Matwi valley a few meters away from Barakat’s home.