After years of neglect, the Palestinians
are going green: Palestinian officials are trying to raise awareness to environmental
issues, encouraging thousands of children to collect compost, visit recycling centers and plant trees.
In a society preoccupied with the struggle for independence from Israel,
protecting the environment has often been sidelined, as evidenced by the ubiquitous sight of burning trash and piles of garbage bags on sidewalks in Ramallah, 30,000 north of Jerusalem.
"We try to send a message to our parents to reduce the use of paper, even the one we use in the bathroom or for cleaning purposes, and to reduce the use of plastic," said Mayar Fawadleh, a grade school student at the St. Joseph school, who showed off a dress and hat she made out of recycled plastic and paper.
St. Joseph is one of 14 Ramallah schools running environmental classes this year, part of a $52,000 initiative funded by the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah city hall and private companies. Still, educators say they face many obstacles: paltry budgets, poor infrastructure, bad habits and life under Israel's thumb.
Malvena Aljamal, who runs the environmental directorate at the Ramallah municipality, said the four-year-old program is a critical first ecological lesson for about 4,000 children in nearly all the city's schools.
Aljamal said there are many challenges. Ten percent of Ramallah's waste goes uncollected daily, she said, because some residents are too lazy to take it to the containers spread around the city. Instead, they burn their garbage, releasing toxic chemicals, or just toss it into neighbors' yards and open lots. Funding challenges and permit delays prevent the execution of plans to build proper landfills.
Yousef Abu Safiya of the Palestinian Environmental Authority says he lacks the resources to enforce bans on unregulated burning and dumping, or to create a green police force.
Education efforts are also hamstrung by disorganization. His department has just $20,000 to spend on education. The Education Ministry this year devoted $3 million to environmental education thanks to European donations,
but officials say poor coordination often stymies joint efforts.
In the Israeli-controlled
part of the West Bank, managing environmental damage in rural areas is nearly impossible, and getting Israeli approval to building landfills and recycling plants far from Palestinian cities can take years. So far, only one environmentally safe landfill is operating in the West Bank.
Besides the planned but still unapproved one outside Ramallah, the Israeli administration said it has approved construction of another dumpsite in the south that will be shared by Palestinians and settlers,
a solution that might cause controversy.
Despite the holdups, Khatib saw some reasons for optimism. He said Hebron Polytechnic University has a new environmental engineering track. Other schools near Ramallah and Nablus have had master's degree programs for water and environment since the 1990s.
"In the long term when there is an independent Palestinian state, I think about the future generations of Palestinians," said Khatib, "who are entitled to live in dignity, harmony and a safe environment."