Hebron forced to crack down on lucrative, dangerous scrap trade

The local authorities are fighting the scrap trade in Hebron, where people burn used goods to extract valuable materials despite the damage it causes to the environment and public health.

al-monitor A Palestinian farmer herds his animals near a pool of water mixed with sewage Deir Estia, West Bank, July 18, 2010.  Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images.
Ahmad Melhem

Ahmad Melhem


Topics covered

Environment and nature

Aug 16, 2018

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Consulate General of Sweden in the Palestinian territories decided to renew a monthly grant of $6,000 as part of the efforts to fight the practice of scrap burning in Idhna, a town in Hebron governorate in the southern West Bank.

Idhna Mayor Muammar Tamizha told Al-Monitor that the Consulate General of Sweden in the Palestinian territories officially communicated its decision to renew the grant for three additional months on Aug. 9. The grant, which was created in April and first delivered in May, pays the municipality-appointed inspectors working for a program to end the scrap burning and prosecute those involved.

The scrap trade involves hundreds of people in Idhna, Deir Sammit and Beit Awwa in Hebron governorate. Raw materials are extracted from scrap commodities — which merchants purchase from Israel at low prices or smuggle into the West Bank — and sold to merchants, which in turn sell to Israeli traders.

Commodities such as electronics, electrical wiring and cables and vehicle engines are all recycled this way in the West Bank. Scrap commodities are sorted by quality. Still usable commodities are sold in retail shops, and damaged goods are handled differently. For instance, electrical cables are burned to extract copper and electronic devices are burned to obtain silver, iron and aluminum.

Idhna has become a scrap-collecting hub. Despite its economic benefits, the scrap trade has taken a heavy toll on the local environment and residents’ health.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Idhna resident M. A. told Al-Monitor that he collects electric cables covered in a rubber or plastic coating and burns them every week to extract and sell the copper inside. He has been making money from scrap for 10 years, and his income varies with how much he processes and copper’s market price.

Ahmed Abu Jaheesha, spokesman for the scrap merchants of Idhna, told Al-Monitor that the town’s economy depends on scrap, an industry that employs 1,800 people. There are 317 shops in the town selling consumable or damaged scrap to be reused. He said that 95% of the scrap material is brought from Israel and recycled before Palestinian merchants in Jerusalem sell the raw materials back to Israel.

Abu Jaheesha pointed out that scrap trade has eliminated joblessness in Idhna. He said that the workers, be they involved in burning scrap or working at the retail stores, earn a high daily wage. He added that merchants in the three towns send about two million shekels (nearly $550,000) every day to purchase scrap. Sales of the recycled materials can add up to 4 million shekels (nearly $1.1 million) a day, he stated.

Abu Jaheesha noted, “Burning operations have dropped by 80%, as wire stripping and cutting machines are being used to cut electric wires into small pieces. Yet, many traders and workers continue to obtain copper by burning off the plastic wraps.”

Tamer Abu Jaheesha, also from Idhna, told Al-Monitor, “I run the only recycling facility where health and environmental requirements are met, as cutting machines are used to cut the wires using air pressure to strip off the plastic of the metal instead of burning it.”

Demand started to increase last year at the five-year-old factory, which is also the only one in town. Tamer attributed the rise to the workers becoming aware that it is harmful to burn plastics. He said an average of 100 to 150 tons of wires is chopped monthly at his facility.

He explained that other merchants often pay him to have the plastic stripped off the copper wire and chopped for 500 shekels ($137) per ton.

He observed that scrap does, however, continue to be burned in the town and nearby and that ending the practice seems impossible. He added, “A huge black cloud settled over the city last year due to scrap burning. But it’s smaller now.”

Concerned with the health and environmental damages, the Idhna municipality and the Environmental Quality Authority in Hebron are working to stop the scrap burning. Bahjat Jabareen, director of the Environment Quality Authority’s office in Hebron, told Al-Monitor, “Countering the scrap trade‘s negative effects is a top strategic priority in Hebron governorate. All types of waste are being smuggled in the governorate, including e-waste and other scrap, causing significant damage to the environment because they are improperly handled.” He noted that Israel is the source of 90% of hazardous waste in the West Bank.

Jabareen added that burning electronic and electrical scrap to obtain metal has caused serious damage to the people’s health and the environment. He pointed out that dozens of dunams of farmland have been contaminated and left unsuitable for cultivation. The same has happened to groundwater wells and springs.

Jabareen said that the burning occurs late at night or during the holidays without anyone knowing in Area C, near the separation wall and where the Palestinian police do not have access. Israel maintains full security and administrative control over Area C under the Oslo Accord.

Mayor Tamizha told Al-Monitor that scrap burning dates back 25 years. The town’s vicinity to the Israeli Tarqumiyah crossing has turned it into a hub for scrap and Israeli waste, he said.

Tamizha stressed, “Cancer has unprecedentedly increased in the town, which has the highest rates in Palestine. It’s the same with asthma and miscarriage.”

He went on, “Large quantities of contaminated olive oil are being destroyed every year, deemed unsuitable for human consumption.”

Tamizha indicated that in cooperation with security services, other municipalities and inspection and oversight bodies in Hebron governorate, Idhna will start conducting road patrols around the clock in the upcoming weeks to prevent scrap burning.

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