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Northern forests, residents suffering from wood coal workshops

Oct. 7, 2009 6:02 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 9, 2009 3:42 P.M.)
Jenin – Ma’an – The northern West Bank forests have fallen victim to a recent industrial upsurge in the Jenin area, destroying green area and producing noxious smoke that some residents say poses a health risk.

The mayor of Ya’bad, Walid Al-Abbady puts most of the blame on the Israeli occupation, whose continuous confiscation of agricultural lands resulted in moving the wood coal workshops to the forests close to residential homes.

The population of the city is just over 8,000. It is a single-industry town, with a small portion of residents diversified in growing tobacco plants, but most working in and around the wood coal industry, where dozens of workshops heat wood in pressurized chambers to make the carbonaceous material used for generating power.

Not only is the industry non-sustainable, it is contaminating the groundwater and destroying the green forest that gives shelter to the town, and once provided a hideout for Sheikh Izz Addin Al-Qassam, the leader of 1930s revolution, and namesake for Hamas’ Al-Qassam Brigades.

According to Mayor Al-Abbady, a recent study showed respiratory diseases in Ya’bad were twice as prevalent there than in neighboring villages. Common knowledge in the village says work in the wood coal workshops causes lungs cancer.

“We benefit from this career, our community benefits, and all of Palestine benefits because we can produce all the wood coal the country needs up here,” 22-year wood coal worker Yasser Abu Bakr said. “It’s good money, my five brothers and I earn 5,000 shekels a month [1,350 USD] and so far none of us have developed any medical conditions.”

Another wood coal worker, Ahmad, was more worried. “Certainly this career is harmful for our health, but we have no other choice. Let the Palestinian Authority find other work for us, and we will leave this.”

Muhammad Atatra, who lives close to wood coal workshops, says most of the children in the village suffer from asthma. He blames the chimneys from the workshops, opened at night when the air is cool. “They release smoke into the entire area, it’s so bad that if you hang up your clothes outside at night, the next morning they will be so grey and rank that you will not be able to wear them,” he explained.

The mayor believes the solution for the crisis is to move workshops far from residential buildings and reduce the amount of poisonous smoke they release. Egypt, he said, produces wood coal without polluting the air. But moving the workshops would require construction permits in areas that border Israeli-only roads and land categorized as Area B or C, which require Israeli permission to build.

Workers in the industry have agreed to take action, but seek support from the Palestinian Authority in the relocation of workshops and making available technology to ensure their safety.

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