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Letter from Birzeit, #7: The Sewage Problem in Salfit, Palestine

October 16, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

The Sewage Problem in Salfit

October 4 Last Sunday, I traveled with a number of people from the Birzeit program to Salfit/Salfeet, a city comprised of seventeen Palestinian villages and surrounded by twenty-three Israeli settlements. As we drove down the road entering Salfit, our teacher Sa’d, who accompanied us on the trip, pointed out the Salfit hospital. This building was completed in 2006, and is the only hospital to service all of Salfit; previously, the closest hospitals were all over an hour away by car. Our teacher also explained that there is a gate — installed by Israel to make travel more difficult for Palestinians; there are hundreds of these such roadblocks throughout Palestine — on the road to the hospital that is only open during certain hours of the day, so “You have to make an agreement with the snakes to only bite you during certain times,” he said, otherwise you won’t be able to go to the hospital to get treated. Classic Palestinian humor. Our first stop was meeting with the governor, who was kind enough to speak with us for about an hour. The Salfit Governate is the largest olive oil producer in Palestine, which is probably why one of the first things the governor mentioned to us was that 1.5 million olive trees have been uprooted by Israel in the past ten years. He also told us that the northern entrance to Salfit has been blocked off due to the presence of the Ariel settlement, and this means that Salfit is now unable to trade with any northern areas of Palestine. Salfit, in addition, is sitting atop the second largest water basin in Palestine; however, Palestinians are forbidden to access it and must instead buy expensive water from Israelis (who I think are just selling the Palestinians the water that was originally from below their very own feet). It can also be difficult for inhabitants of Salfit to get water from natural springs: Sometimes Israelis dig wells nearby to drain the springs, while others are polluted by untreated sewage coming from the settlements. [caption id=“attachment_21975” align=“alignright” width=“300”]The "green river" of sewage from the Ariel settlement. The “green river” of sewage from the Ariel settlement.[/caption] The issue of the sewage is one of the most important in Salfit. Ariel, one of the five largest settlements in Israel (with a population of almost 20,000), is just outside of Salfit and it dumps about 300,000 liters of untreated sewage into the neighboring valley of al-Matwi every single day. This waste contaminates the water Palestinians in Salfit drink (especially as the water source for Salfit is right next to the river of Ariel sewage water), as well as the grass eaten by Palestinian cows — and thus their milk — and it negatively affects the health of people living in the area. People have developed skin diseases, and there is now a higher rate of cancer in the district. The sewage river also flows directly through (and I mean directly — it’s the equivalent of the median on a main road) two of the Palestinian villages, and the smell is so intense. There was a German project to clean/process the waste in Salfit, but Israel will only give them a permit if the project will also process Ariel’s waste, a demand that is understandably rejected by the Palestinians — why should it be their responsibility to clean up after the settlers? So now they can’t clean anything. Another part of the problem is that 74 percent of Salfit is in Area C (total Israeli control), which means Salfit can’t really expand physically despite a growing population (settlements, of course, continue to expand under the excuse of “natural increase”). The other main consequence of being in Area C is that most farmers cannot take care of their olive trees with a difficult-to-obtain permit, as the land has basically been taken from them. And even once they receive these permits, they’re usually not given enough time to tend to their trees or harvest the olives (the season is about to start, by the way!). As the governor explained, the olive trees represent a spiritual connection of Palestinians to their land, and what is happening now is “a war against olive trees.” The Palestinian Authority in Salfit is expected to defend the settlers, which is a problem in and of itself, but there’s also the issue that almost all of Salfit is in Areas B and C; thus, police can’t enter these areas without a permit, which often takes a long time to obtain — if at all. But according to the governor, there is low crime among Palestinians (I’ve heard that from several people, actually), lower than in Israel or among Palestinians living in Israel. At some point, the governor and one of the women who works in the office had a brief argument about the one-state versus two-state solution. The governor supported the latter, arguing that the problem with the one-state solution is that it will be based on Israel trying to control everyone, but they are outnumbered by Palestinians so it wouldn’t work. Another interesting fact that emerged during the presentation by this woman was that 53.3 percent of Salfit’s population is between the ages of 0-19, and that the national percentage for this group is about 51 percent. It’s an extremely young population here, and the life expectancy according to the presenter is estimated to be around 65 years (only 3.9 percent of Salfit’s population is 65+ years old). Google, however, is telling me that the life expectancy in Palestine is 72.83 years, while Israel’s is 81.76 years. img_04031Later in the day, we went to the home of a man named Hani Amir (هاني عامر). His home is cut off from the village of Mas-ha by the separation wall, but he is in a unique situation in that his home is technically in the Israeli settlement of El Kana because of where the wall was built. In fact, his house is blocked off by the wall on one side and a large fence on all other sides so that he is basically in his own state — and the graffiti on the separation wall next to the door that leads to his house reads, “Welcome to the state of Hani Amir” (أهلاً وسهلاً بدولة هاني عامر). The village of Mas-ha is technically about 8,800 dunums in size, but only 800 are not in Area C. This means that the 2,700 inhabitants of the village can only build and expand in that small amount of land, while the settlers have confiscated the rest. Now back to the situation of Hani Amir: Almost all of his land was confiscated by Israeli authorities when the settlement was being built, and now he is left with about one dunum on which to live — but not expand — with his whole family (I believe there are six people living in this small house). All of his neighbors are Israeli settlers, who often throw stones at his home and shout racist things; in the past, they even shot at his house. [caption id=“attachment_21979” align=“alignright” width=“225”]The entrance to "the State of Hani Amir" The entrance to “the State of Hani Amir”[/caption] Israeli forces continuously tried to push Hani off his land, first by isolating him and then by bulldozing as much of his home and farmland as they could, but Hani stood tall and stood strong and contacted international human rights groups to help his case. The progress has been gradual for him; there is a gate surrounding his house, for example, and initially it could only be unlocked by a member of the IDF who would open it for him fifteen minutes of every day and no one else was allowed to enter his home. Finally, he won the right to have his own key for the gate. Before this, however, his son, who was only 3 at the time, wandered outside the gate and toward the settlement, and although his mother begged the soldiers to go get him (as she wasn’t allowed into the settlement), they just told her that it wasn’t their problem. There is also a 24/7 camera fixed on Hani’s house so the Israeli authorities can watch him at all times, and apparently they might search the house if they see any movement at night. Click here for a brief article on Hani’s situation. Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.