GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Waste collectors and garbage truck drivers at the Juhr al-Dik landfill, southeast of Gaza City, resumed Feb. 5 their work despite the large number of scavengers on-site.
The Gaza municipality had announced Feb. 1 that the spread of scavengers at the landfill forced the workers to suspend their work for a few days, refraining from collecting trash in the streets.
On Jan. 22, government medical sources announced having received the body of a 14-year-old boy, later identified as Osama Sarsak, who was found at the Juhr al-Dik landfill. According to a forensic report, Sarsak died of suffocation.
Fingers of blame were pointed at the garbage truck drivers. According to the victim’s father, his son was helping him in collecting scrap metal at the landfill when he went missing. After hours of searching, the teenager was found dead inside the landfill.
Human rights centers called on the authorities to launch an investigation into the incident.
Due to the harsh economic situation in the Gaza Strip, scavengers search in the piles of waste for materials that can be recycled and sold, such as pieces of plastic, metal, copper and aluminum.
One scavenger, who refused to be named, told Al-Monitor, “After the incident [of the dead teenager], the municipality banned us from entering the landfill through its main entrance. Now we have to jump over the walls, which is risky for us.”
“I need money, and that's why I go there in search of copper, plastic and iron parts. I make around $10 a day from selling scrap,” he said, adding that he is an automobile engineering student at the Palestine Technical College in Gaza.
He noted that he has been coming to the landfill for over 10 years and has never been exposed to any health or environmental hazard. He said that other scavengers look for food leftovers among the waste.
“We had a hard time when the garbage trucks stopped arriving for a few days. The garbage is our only source of living. It was a good thing that the truck driver had a change of heart and resumed work so we could also go back to what we do,” he said.
Mohammad Jundiya, 23, told Al-Monitor that he has been coming to the site with his family since he was just seven years old.
“I support my family from my work at the landfill. I make between $9 and $12 a day,” Jundiya told Al-Monitor. “I arrive here at 5 a.m. before the garbage trucks, and leave by 5 p.m. They stop working at 3 p.m.,” he said, stressing that the news of the dead teenager affected him deeply.
He noted, “We called on our colleagues to stop bringing their young children with them. We do not want such accidents to happen again.”
Jundiya added, “When the police came to arrest us a few days ago on charges of obstructing the work of the garbage truck drivers, we had to run toward the Israeli border, bare-chested and white flags in our hands, so we wouldn't get arrested. Some of my friends were arrested by the [Gaza police] and others were severely beaten."
“I’d rather run to Israel and not get beaten or arrested here. We don’t want anything from the municipality, just to let us be here and work,” he said, noting that working at a landfill is extremely hazardous, with many scavengers being injured, but they keep coming back to provide for their families.
One of the merchants who buys scrap from scavengers was also on-site at the time of Al-Monitor's visit.
“I hold a master’s degree in literary criticism from Ain Shams University and graduated in 2013. I have not been able to find a job. Now I sell scrap,” he told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “I buy metal and plastic scrap as well as batteries and damaged household utensils from scavengers and I sell them,” noting that the iron is sold to pressers and plastic to factories for recycling.
Hosni Mhanna, director of public relations at the Gaza municipality, told Al-Monitor that the truckers had complained about the scavengers standing in their way at the landfill and holding on to the trucks, which endangers their lives.
“They fear other deaths might occur,” he said. “After the death of the teenager, the police were everywhere at the landfill, which kept the scavengers at bay. When the investigations were over, they returned in great numbers, which obstructed the work of the drivers who tried to talk to them to make way. They even addressed the security forces, but their intervention is temporary and does not rise to the extent of the problem."
“When the security forces show up at the landfill, you see scavengers running toward the Israeli border or hiding in the agricultural lands nearby. As soon as the security forces leave the premises, they come back and things return to normal,” he added.
Mhanna explained that the landfill receives approximately 1,200 tons of waste per day form three governorates — north Gaza, Deir al-Balah and Gaza governorates — noting that the municipality sympathizes with the scavengers who number not more than 200 people, but raises health and environmental concerns.
“The landfills are a very dangerous place,” Mhanna said, noting that the landfill is close to the border area and is targeted by the Israeli army from time to time.
“They [Israelis] throw bombs sometimes, which causes fires extending to large areas,” he said.
“The municipality put forward a plan to accommodate scavengers and invest in the process of sorting waste in an orderly and not random manner in different neighborhoods and away from the border landfill,” he added, stressing that this plan needs the support of donors.
He said, “Sorting garbage would cost some $30 million, not including the process of disposing of waste, which can take up to 12 hours."
The municipality tried to raise awareness about the dangers of rummaging through garbage, but the scavengers ignored it as they do not have any other source of income, Mhanna concluded.