Tulkarem: a Palestinian city gasping for air

When the Israeli factory Gishuri set up operations in his village in 1985, Fayez al-Taneeb never imagined the impact it was to have on his life and the lives of those around him.

Previously located in just 12km away in Netanya, Israel, the chemical plant had been shut down by an Israeli court ruling following legal action filed by local residents to stop the pollution it was creating.

Not long after, Gishuri shifted its operations to the West Bank’s Area C, over which Israel holds complete control.

Twenty seven years later, the Palestinian city of Tulkarem is being chocked not only by the separation wall surrounding it but by the eleven Israeli chemical plants established there between 1985 and 2007.

Al-Taneeb, a farmer and local community spokesperson whose land neighbours the Tulkarem industrial zone, has seen most of his land confiscated since 1985.

Other local residents have simply been denied access to their farmlands.

For Al-Taneeb, these new companies have behaved like settlers, taking over Palestinian lands, evicting their inhabitants and harassing those who resist.

Over and above the corporate occupation it represents, the industrial zone is having devastating effects on the health of the local population and environment. The constant cloud of dust and gases in the atmosphere is the direct cause of the eye infections, as well as skin and respiratory ailments that have been widely affecting local residents.

In an article published in March 2012, the Alternative Information Centre (AIC) underlines that “a study by An Najah University (Nablus) found cancers and other diseases strictly connected to the chemical pollution in 77 per cent of Palestinian residents in the area.”

The AIC also reports that “more than 300 dunams [300,000 square metres] of agricultural land are contaminated by the factories’ emissions.” Furthermore, as al-Taneeb points out, the factories suspend operations when the wind is blowing towards Israel, offering clear proof they are fully aware of how hazardous their emissions are.


Total impunity

Al-Taneeb explains that two years after the Gishuri factory had been moved to their area, a group of residents, tired of fearing for their children’s health and having to live with their windows closed, tried to file a petition with an Israeli court, to no avail.

The popular protests that followed also failed to bring about any change.

Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse, with no fewer than ten factories adding to the smoke-filled landscape of the industrial zone.

But as the Alternative Information Center explains, the decision to set up operations in Tulkarem was not a casual one:

“Tulkarem is close to the Green Line and to the Israeli market…For Israeli businesses, labor costs in Tulkarem are substantially lower and Israeli labor law is inapplicable to the Palestinian workers (who fall under the Jordanian Law of 1964). Few rights, less protection. And finally, huge exemptions in the payment of taxes to Israeli authorities.”

In May 2010, Corporate Occupation interviewed two workers who attested to the appalling working conditions in the industrial zone: pay often lower than the Israeli minimum wage, a ban on unions, no safety regulations in spite of the hazardous nature of the products manufactured, etc.

They also reported that Palestinian trade unions have not been allowed access to the zone since 2008, thus preventing them from recording the abuses committed there and defending the workers’ rights.

Al-Taneeb, undeterred by the countless obstacles he has had to face such as repeated attempts to sabotage his irrigation system, is determined not to give up, and has now decided to go into organic farming.

Having opted for greenhouse crops, he hopes to show the Israeli authorities that nothing will stop him from resisting the occupation he has been suffering firsthand, every day, for the last twenty seven years.