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Egyptian Charcoal for Sale in Israel

Palestinians bag Egyptian charcoal destined for sale in Israel. Photographs: Lydia Aisenberg

Although supposedly winter, it is a hot and muggy day in mid-February. Wild flowers poke their heads up between the weeds, rocks and rows of olive trees in the northern West Bank Dotan Valley. The area is a post-Oslo designated Area C under Israeli control, but a left turn off the road brings one to the entrance of East Barta'a. This part of the village is slated as an Area B and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, although there are no signs en-route informing one of the change.

However, one large bright yellow sign a short distance from the pre-1967 border with the then Jordanian-held West Bank states that it is forbidden to take any vehicles for repair or to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority – although it doesn't name anywhere or give any indication as to where the line is that one should not cross. That line just happens to be a few meters down the road and around a sharp bend at the side of the road by the Harish Border Police base.

After a few hundred meters one has crossed the line, literally. It is quiet, pastoral with typical West Bank stone-built terraces all over the sloping valley, olive orchards planted in the rich but rocky soil and a small grey donkey tethered to a tree. An elderly Palestinian, black and white keffiyeh wrapped around his head, sits on a rock a few feet away from the grazing animal. A large walking stick hangs on a small tree beside the motionless man on the rock. The farmer's hands are firmly placed on his knees and he seems to be lost in thought as he stares out over the recently tilled field and orchards below.

On either side of the turnoff leading to East Barta'a, creating a bizarre sight indeed, are huge piles of mangled cars where, until recently, old olive trees stood their ground. The wrecks sit precariously one on top of the other and fill the embankments on either side of the road. Among the piles of battered, twisted metal are some yellow Israeli number plates and a few white Palestinian plates, but the majority are without any at all. Stripped of anything worth anything, this gigantic graveyard of once

roadworthy vehicles leads to a pair of enormous marble-covered archways, Palestinian flags flapping in the breeze on either side.

"Welcome to Barta'a" reads a sign in Arabic.

The unsightly metal mess is the start of one and a half kilometers of businesses dealing in scrap metal, building materials, furniture, clothing and much more, that has sprung up in the village since the construction of the electronic surveillance fence in the early part of the new millennium. In this area, the fence is built behind the village, leaving the villagers in a situation of betwixt and between, fence and major checkpoint behind them, the 1949 drawn Green Line in front.

Underneath the arches, businesses selling decorative tiles, plaques inscribed with verses from the Koran, building materials and scrap metal of course, are stacked up on either side of the wide road. Palestinian flags - some new, some tattered - line the way. 

Sign outside the Israel Border Police base at Harish

The offices of the 'businesses' are created from shipping containers as indeed are many of the clothing and household goods shops closer to the center of the village. Many of the signs are both in Arabic and in Hebrew. In recent years, hundreds of Israeli Jews have joined the thousands of Arab citizens of Israel coming to shop or do business in this unique enclave of economic opportunity that is so different from anywhere else in the West Bank.

Passing under the arches, one goes from Area C to Area B in a few brisk paces, with Katzir, the Israeli Jewish town in-the-making sitting up on a mountain range in the near distance, the red roofed buildings showing up magnificently against a deep blue sky. The 760 families of Katzir live on the Green Line, or rather overlooking the line and the village of East Barta'a below.

In a large structure built from thin metal sheeting, two 30-year old West Bank Palestinian workers break open enormous sacks of charcoal stacked almost to the ceiling of the rickety and none-too-impressive edifice. Here, not only is it hot but the dust-filled air seems to stand still, clogging one's mouth and nose within minutes. Even though the air is heavy and the surroundings somewhat depressing, the two dust-covered men busy shoveling charcoal both flash broad friendly smiles, obviously delighted that someone is actually interested in them, and grateful for a few minutes respite from their tedious and none-too-healthy work.

The young men, using an old-fashioned metal scale of the type only found in museums these days, spend their days shoveling small amounts of what some Palestinians call 'black gold' into brown paper bags, and then insert them into plastic bags, the corners of which are tightly knotted, before joining a stack of ready-to-go and waiting for collection bags in the entrance.

There are no labels in any language on either the paper or plastic bags. The Palestinians explain that the charcoal originates from Egypt and is trucked to Barta'a from the Egyptian/Israeli border of Nitzana. Once repacked into smaller amounts in Barta'a, the majority of the bags will end up in Israel fuelling the fire under steaks being grilled outdoors. A few weeks before Israelis celebrate Independence Day, with the extended family picnicking and grills working overtime, is a particularly busy time for the Palestinians charcoal workers. Writers of satire would have a field day with Egyptian charcoal being processed by Palestinians in the West Bank ensuring that there is no shortage in Israel for Independence Day celebrations!

The Palestinian charcoal workers, one of whom with LONDON COOL printed across the right side of his jacket, pass through the Reihan-Barta'a checkpoint in the security fence at six in the morning and return around the same time in the evening. They are from the Palestinian town of Yabed, perched on a large hill in the middle of the Dotan Valley just a short drive away. However, since the construction of the fence and checkpoint, it can take anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour or more for them to pass through and if there is a security alert in the region the checkpoint is closed and so is the possibility of a day's earnings, should that happen at the beginning of a day.

In the not-so-distant past, hundreds of Palestinians used to work in the Dotan valley slow-burning wood to make charcoal, the production of which was a main source of income for hundreds of families living in Yabed. Scores of such charcoal making plants have been closed down over the last few years by order of the Israeli authorities as the environmental damage done by the charcoal industry in the Dotan Valley was enormous. Both Palestinians in the immediate area and Israelis living in kibbutzim hugging the Green Line a few kilometers away complained bitterly about health problems, the pollution creating difficulty with breathing and watering eyes regardless of which side of the 1949 Armistice Line one might live, which citizenship one held or which religion one practiced, for after all, pollution is pollution and affects all equally.

With their means of livelihood shut down, some of the former charcoal makers of the Dotan Valley have taken poorly paid jobs in the shops and factories built up in East Barta'a by Palestinian businessmen. They are not only locals, but also residents of Hebron, Nablus and Tulkarem, although the majority are from the nearest Palestinian city on the other side of the checkpoint in the fence, Jenin.

While I am talking to the Palestinian charcoal packers, the owner of the business arrives. He is from the same family in Yabed as they are. When I ask how many people are dependent on the work going on in this particular charcoal packing plant, the three do a quick reckoning and together answer "23".

A 19-year-old local lad approaches. He is curious to know what is going on and it is a good excuse to break the monotony of dismantling cars on the other side of the road. He is from Barta'a, speaks some English and quickly engages in conversation about himself and the extended Kabaha family of which he is a member along with the majority of the village residents. Asked if he is allowed over the 1949 Green Line, he quickly answers, "Of course not". Never been to Tel Aviv then? Surprisingly the answer is yes and while he is answering he begins to pull his t-shirt off his shoulder to show a very large, wide scar across the upper part of his body. "I was in Ichilov hospital," he answers with a grin, "but I didn't see Tel Aviv." Some years ago, explains the young man, whilst training in a gym, he suffered a serious injury and ended up at Ichilov. He then swings his arm to and fro to show that all is working as it should be!

As we chat a car races by, the driver's head barely on a level with the top of the steering wheel. Asked how old the driver is, the young man grins. "I can't remember if he is 13 or 14," he answers.

A few plots up on the same side of the road, a pile of concrete rubble and an incongruous sign states that a building had been demolished by Israeli Authorities on 13 September, 2013, that the operation had taken two hours and the officer in charge was named 'Yigal'. There is no official emblem, demolition order number or signature on the large sign and the impression is that it has been printed and erected by local Palestinian activists running an Arabic language website about events in Barta'a and the surrounding region.

Asked about the rubble and the sign, Palestinians in a nearby builder's yard explain that there is tacit agreement in this part of East Barta'a between Israeli authorities, the Palestinian Authority and local Palestinians with regard to construction. Shipping containers are allowed, but bricks and mortar - anything permanent - is a no-go.

"This guy thought he would prove that he could build a business from concrete blocks and get away with it but you can see how successful he was," was the comment made by a bystander listening in to the conversation. Somewhat confused, the writer asks how East Barta'a, an Area B under the Palestinian Authority, is not answerable to the PA with regard to building permission.

The Palestinians glance at each other, laugh and disperse with no answer offered. Maybe there isn't one. Maybe here in East Barta'a, what to B is not to B in the words of the great Bard, or the Oslo Peace Accords.

See also how Lydia explains the Green Line 



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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