A West Bank crusade against pollution

The West Bank used to be a 'pollution haven' because of a dearth of environmental regulation, but Israeli settlement officials are seeking to change that.

Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor
Nitsan Levy (l.) and Yitzhak Meyer (r.) have been working to improve environmental practices in and around Israeli settlements for nearly two decades.

When Nitsan Levy used to inspect potential construction sites, he would wear a helmet – not because there were cranes operating or sparks flying, but because the second Palestinian intifada was in full swing.

He also had a bulletproof vest. And after a near miss during the first intifada in 1988, when a stone came flying through the windshield of his fast-moving Ford Fiesta, he upgraded to a rugged truck with bulletproof windows.

Such is the life of an environmental quality guru in the West Bank, where Israeli settlers have decided not to wait for a peace agreement with Palestinians to address the area’s numerous environmental challenges.

As director general of the Municipal Association for Environmental Quality in Judea, Dr. Levy works with eight Israeli settlement municipalities in the southern half of the West Bank, including the cities of Betar Illit and Maale Adumim and settlement blocs like Gush Etzion.

His counterpart to the north is Yitzhak Meyer, director general of the Environmental Protection Association in Samaria and the Jordan Valley, who spearheaded the idea of Israeli environmental management in the West Bank.

“It was very difficult for me that we built settlements without thinking about the environment,” says Mr. Meyer, who has lived in Ofra for 37 years. All the momentum, he says, was to “come back to the holy places of the Bible. Nobody thought about what would be [there for] the next generation.”

When Meyer first started in 1992, and Levy in 1995, companies treated the territory as a "pollution haven" – there was virtually no environmental regulation – and it was hard to get Israeli settlers to listen. Israelis living in hilltop settlements, sometimes with only a few caravans and encircled by Palestinian villages, were getting kidnapped and sometimes killed by Palestinians who saw their presence as a threat to Palestinian nationhood. “When people are afraid about their security, they don’t think about the environment,” notes Meyer.

But that’s gradually changing, perhaps in part due to improved security.

“They cannot ignore us anymore because we are in a very important position,” says Levy, who currently holds the rotating chair for the roughly 60 Israeli municipal environmental units. “All planning … comes through us.”

“Today nobody can bring a factory here if we don’t see [plans] beforehand and give the authorization,” adds Meyer.

There have also been some opportunities to work together with Palestinians on issues of mutual concern, says Levy, who did his dissertation in trans-boundary environmental management between asymmetrical political entities such as the US and Mexico.

One such issue of mutual concern is garbage; Levy and Meyer have met with local Bedouins and a lawyer for Palestinian villagers, all of whom are opposed to a proposed landfill between the settlement of Rimonim and the Arab village of Ramun northeast of Ramallah. Together they have launched a formal objection against the 15 million euro ($20.6 million) project.

If Israelis and Palestinians don’t find peace at the negotiating table, maybe they will find it while sorting their trash. “Peace will be at the garbage,” says Meyer, perhaps only half-joking.

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