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.
Throughout the occupied West Bank, on the Saturday and Sunday before Eid al-Ahda, settlers launched a wave of agricultural and vehicular attacks against Palestinians.
Early morning on Sunday, August 19, settlers attacked a vehicle driving down the Qalqilya-Nablus road with stones, injuring four, according to Wafa.
Settlers were reportedly from Yitzhar settlement, south of Nablus.
Late in the night of the same day, settlers punctured the tires of multiple Palestinian vehicles in the neighborhood of al-Issawiya in occupied East Jerusalem.
Racist graffiti was spray painted on walls and various vehicles throughout the neighborhood.
According to the al-Issawiya Follow Up Committee, the settlers who rampaged the neighborhood were a part of the far-right group known as “Price Tag.”
The group and its various vandalism attacks were initiated in 2008 as a “price tag” for the removal of illegal outposts in the West Bank, and they’ve continuously been on an incline until today.
On Saturday, August 18, settlers uprooted dozens of olive trees in Ras Karkar, in the Ramallah governorate.
Spray painted graffiti of racial slurs in the Hebrew language were also found on the walls of a water well on the private Palestinian land that the destroyed trees were a part of.
Dozens more olive trees in Arrabeh, south of Jenin, were also chopped down by settlers the same day.
According to Palestinian news agency Wafa, this wave of attacks is linked to the death of a settler woman in a hit-and-run car accident that took place last Thursday.
Near the Havat Gilad settlement, a settler woman in her 40s sustained injuries from the car accident until paramedics arrived, who eventually had to pronounce her dead on the scene after revilitization efforts failed.
The hit-and-run perpetrator was a 60-year-old Palestinian taxi driver, who later turned himself in to authorities insisting that it was an accident and that he fled out of fear.
Settler attacks on Palestinian homes in the villages of Jaloud and Asira al-Qiblia since Thursday have also been reported.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in June of this year that settler violence has been on the rise.
In the first four months of 2018 alone, OCHA documented 84 incidents of Israeli settler violence that resulted in 27 Palestinian casualties and 57 cases of damages to Palestinian property.
This is the highest monthly average recorded since 2014, representing a 50 percent increase from 2017 and a 164 percent increase from 2016.
The Nablus governorate is consistently the highest targeted area.
The Israeli parliament pushed forward a bill last week, July 4, that will allow settlement construction in the “City of David” national park in Silwan, East Jerusalem.
The bill, which was advanced with an 8-6 vote, will “enable housing” in areas dedicated to the national park and is within municipality borders, Haaretz reported.
Only three votes are needed by the Knesset plenum for the bill to be officially passed.
Knesset Member (MK) of the Likud party and Chairman of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, Yoav Kisch, promoted the bill in cooperation with the City of David Foundation.
Both Kisch and the City of David Foundation cite historical preservation and archaeological value of the area as a necessity for settlement expansion.
The “City of David” is believed to be the areas where Jerusalem stood during the reigns of King David and Solomon over 3000 years ago – a key argument used to justify Zionism.
Also known as Elad, the City of David Foundation is a right-wing non-profit organization that claims to be “dedicated to the preservation and development of the Biblical City of David and its environs,” according to the group’s website.
The group is, however, notorious for its aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem, especially in the Silwan area.
In May of this year Elad organized the forceful removal of three Palestinian families from their homes in Silwan to make room for new settlers.
Peace Now reported 10 additional properties that Elad has managed to seize over the last two years in a continued attempt by the settler group to turn Silwan into a Jewish neighborhood.
It is claimed that the Elad-run national park is the only area that meets the construction criteria of the proposed bill.
However, the purpose of this bill is to promote construction by and for Elad and its settlers, which was apparently made clear in the last committee meeting held in January of this year with Elad’s founder David Beeri.
Ir Amim, a left-wing Israeli activist group, and Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that works to preserve historical integrity of archaeological sites, both oppose settlement expansion in the national park.
According to these groups, Elad has been working on this project since the 1990s, but the over-zealous construction plan was tabled due to strong civil opposition.
Israel’s attempt to erase Palestinian identity from worldview goes far beyond their land grab tactic. State propaganda efforts consistently appropriate Arab and Palestinian culture and claim it as their own.
July 25 is national Palestinian Heritage Wear Day, which also coincides with Arabic Culture Day. Both of these initiatives are Palestinian attempts at reclaiming the culture being stripped away from them by the occupation.
Two weeks ago, on June 30, the celebrations commenced in al-Bireh, Ramallah. A crowd of almost 300 gathered in the streets and marched to the al-Bireh municipality office. Men and women, young and old, were all dawning different traditional Palestinian garb.
“This initiative started four years ago,” Lana Hijazi, one of the lead organizers of the march, told Palestine Monitor.
“When we saw an Israeli fashion model wearing a Palestinian dress and saying that is it an Israeli dress. That made us angry and sad and we wanted to change that and stop it. So we decided that we should wear our national dresses and go out in the streets.”
“That is our way to resist the Israel work on stealing our traditional clothes.”
Israeli designer Yaron Minkowski draped Israeli models with the traditional Arab headdress – and symbol of Palestinian resistance – the kuffiyeh. In the 2015 fashion week, Minkowski said he attempted to transform the kuffiyeh into a “symbol of coexistence.”
In 2016 Israeli designer Dodo Bar Or went even further and eroticized the kuffiyeh in her spring collection. Extreme cuts, backless dresses, and short rompers mocked the traditional design of Arab heritage wear.
And last September some bedouin women in Negev were actually tricked into creating a dress with traditional Palestinian embroidery for the New York Fashion Week. The group of women, known as Desert Embroidery, were approached by Israeli designer Aviad Arik Herman for a partnership, unaware that the project was sponsored by the OR movement, an Israeli organization that works to settle Jews in the Negev and Galilee.
This year there are 10 cities and villages around the West Bank that will be hosting an event in celebration and reclamation of Palestinian heritage wear from Israeli appropriation.
“[Palestinian] heritage wear is very unique and it’s different from one city to another. That’s what is special about making these activities in each city. [And] each city has its own challenges,” Hijazi explained to Palestine Monitor.
“For example, Salfit is one of the places that has a lot of settlements and problems with settlers… Qalqilia is surrounded by the Israeli apartheid wall… Battir is a very well-known historical city and its known for its special plants and is now on the map of the international heritage map.”
“Every city has its special, own circumstances,” Hijazi continued, “and having a happy, Palestinian ceremony happening in these places – a happy march – its very special.”
“Usually as Palestinians we have a lot of sad ceremonies, a lot of sad days. So this is a happy day. We want everybody to wear the Palestinian traditional wear, be happy, sing the traditional songs, dance, walk on the streets, take photos, smile, and connect with our ancestors through our clothes and our culture.”
The Palestinian Heritage Wear Day Initiative is a team of volunteers who simply want to take action in their own hands.
The last march, on July 7, took place in Battir and was a celebration in combination with a local wedding. Women of the bride and groom’s family along with Palestinians from all over the West Bank came together in dresses traditionally worn for weddings.
The women paraded behind the happy couple’s car clapping and chanting traditional wedding songs.
“We don’t want to be like the UN and just [be] worried and not doing anything. We want to do something to change the situation,” Hijazi said about the volunteers in the initiative.
The Palestinian Heritage Wear Day Initiative also takes action outside these annual marches.
Efforts are made to keep the knowledge and skill of traditional embroidery alive in the younger generation.
Talking about the importance of keeping the tradition of embroidery going, a woman from Darna Couture, a retail shop in Ramallah that showcases Palestinian fashion and heritage with a modern touch, at the Battir march told Palestine Monitor, “We don’t want it to die out with the younger generation.”
“Your grandmother passed it to your mother and you mother passed it to you [but] now it’s starting to be [made] by computers. We’re trying to pass down theses artistries, not let somebody claim our heritage, our dress, our food, our culture. We want to re-appropriate our culture.”
The initiative helps empower young and marginalized women from Gaza and the West Bank by bringing sewing kits to their homes and teaching them the skill of embroidery. This action keeps Palestinian heritage alive and helps the economic status of Palestinian women.
The next march will take place in Hebron on July 12.