Gush Shalom Report, July 13, 2002

There we were, a Gush Shalom delegation joined with Palestinian inhabitants in holding a vigil under rather uncomfortable conditions: right at the edge of a pile of garbage, some of it very ripe after five days of the hottest month in the year, part of it having been set on fire some hours before and with acrid smoke still blowing. The slogan: "Occupation = living in the garbage". "Haim Ba'zevel" (living in the garbage) is Hebrew slang for particularly nasty or depressing situations - which certainly fits the present situation of the reimposed harsh occupation, but which also happens to be literally true at A- Ram, a large Palestinian town wedged in between annexed East Jerusalem and re- occupied Ramallah.

After the few press photographers present took all the pics and footage they wanted and we moved with a sigh of relief away from the mess, it was possible to survey our surroundings. The houses around - far from being a slum - were nice middle-class homes and the street neat and orderly except for that stinking blemish at its side. In point of fact, A-Ram is not the worst off of Palestinian towns, and until last week it possessed an efficient system of garbage removal, industriously built up by Mayor Ra'ed Barghouti in the seven years of relative freedom which followed the Oslo agreement. For the people of A-Ram - spared, at least for the time being, from the curfews imposed on most other West Bank communities - the growing piles of garbage on their streets are a visible sign that that relative freedom is no more.

Sitting down with the mayor and councillors, as well as with the two Members of the Palestinian Parliament representing this constituency - Hatem Abdel Khader and Ahmed El Baz - we heard how the mundane municipal business of garbage collection and sewers intersected with the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to produce unpleasant results for the town's 50,000 inhabitants. Until recently, the A-Ram Municipality used to send the 80 tons of garbage daily produced in the town to damp in Al-Bireh, a few kilometers to the north and in normal times just a few minutes' drive away. But the times are anything but normal, the army roadblocks multiplied and the minutes lengthened into many hours which the garbage trucks had to spend in the long lines in front ahead of the checkpoint. Finally, when Ramallah and Al-Bireh were re-occupied and placed under curfew, soldiers at the checkpoint altogether denied entry to the A-Ram trucks.

The mayor found an emergency solution - to reactivate an old garbage damp, at the edge of its city limits, which had been used by the Jerusalem municipality until three years ago. They used it for some weeks, taking care to cover the damped garbage with earth and sprinkle chemicals to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for insects. Still, the army seemed very displeased with the solution found by A-Ram. So displeased that even while complaining that its forces were spread too thin by the need of combating terrorism, the army found the manpower for conducting two large-scale raids on A-Ram, on June 30 and July 8 respectively, whose sole purpose was to confiscate the town's entire fleet of garbage-collecting trucks (which had been donated a few years ago by the Government of Japan), arrest municipal employees and impose high fines on them.

The employees were then instructed to deliver a message: "everything" would be set right by a simple personal visit of the mayor to the offices of the Israeli military government's "civil administration" at the settlement of Beit El; but should the mayor fail to show up, retribution would come upon him, starting from his name being entered on the "black list" of individual Palestinians who are forbidden to go through any Israeli Army roadblock...

This "modest" demand held far-reaching political implications: for a mayor and his council to submit to the demand and deal directly with the civil administration which was supposedly abolished seven years ago would be a formal recognition of the reimposed occupation... So for the time being the garbage continues piling up. "If sickness spreads from these piles of garbage, it will not stop on our side" said Khatem Abdul Khader of the Palestinian Legislative Council. "We are very near here to the Israeli neighborhood of Neve Ya'akov. It was built on our lands."