West Bank boys survive on Israeli settlers’ garbage

By Steven Erlanger

As the truck unloaded, the children pounced on the garbage like flies. Some swung aloft on the hydraulic pistons that opened the back, then dropped onto the mound of trash to grab a piece of metal, a crushed can, a soda bottle or a stinking T-shirt.

One boy slipped and disappeared for a moment beneath the garbage as the truck lumbered forward to dump more of its load. He scrambled up again, losing his footing on a pile of animal intestines, grabbing a thicket of shrubbery cut from someone’s garden.

Another boy found a small nylon Israeli flag and tried to tear it with his teeth; yet another unearthed a small lilac umbrella, which he held over his head and showed off to his friends. Most dug diligently for metal, which they dumped into the ripped nylon sacks they carry.

Nearby, on a hill of garbage 3 meters, or 10 feet, high, a young boy sat alone.

He had found a plastic pack of crackers; he chewed them slowly, almost thoughtfully.

The boys are part of a loosely knit colony of scavengers, nearly 250 people who scramble over fetid hills of other people’s trash to eke out a living for their families and themselves. Most are younger than 16; some sleep here during the week to make the most of the hours they can hunt for goods to sell. Many are related, from a few large clans, and they have a kind of organization, with a 23-year-old bulldozer driver who settles disputes, and a code of conduct, so that every digger’s finds are respected.

For all the agonizing about nearby Hebron – how far Israel should go to resolve competing Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city – this desolate spot is a symbol of the impact of Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank and of the dire economic state of the Palestinian territories, where about a third of adults are without work.

Many of the adults working the site have been unable to get jobs in Israel since 2000 and the second intifada, when Israel instituted stronger security measures to try to prevent suicide bombings.

This dump has become a lifeline and informal workplace for them and for the children helping to support poor families in the southern West Bank. The scene is reminiscent of the poverty of the Third World, of places like Manila’s notorious garbage mountain, but this desperate place is next door to Israel, the country with the highest per capita income in the Middle East.

For the moment, the diggers were disappointed – this truck carried Palestinian garbage, from Hebron. The real treasures, they said, come from the Israeli settlements in this area of the occupied West Bank.

It is settlers’ trash that keeps them alive – and, in an odd way, entertained.

Mahmoud Ibrahim, 10, found a pair of angel’s wings, apparently from a costume party or a ballet performance. He wore them upside down but happily, flitting around the dump while the other boys applauded.

His brother, Muhammad, 11, who fancies himself a model from the magazines he salvages, wore a discarded suit, several sizes too large, that appeared to have been from a bar mitzvah. With the grime wiped away from both the suit and the boy, he would have made a mother proud.

Youssef Rabai, 18, found a bright orange ribbon, the symbol of settlers’ resistance to the Israeli pullout from Gaza, and wound it around his forehead; the ends flopped onto the grimy kaffiyeh around his neck. Asked if he knew what the orange meant, he shrugged. When told, he laughed. “I’m a settler here,” he said.

The dump, formally run by the Hebron municipality, is in the rocky, dusty hills near the village of Ad Deirat; it is used both by Palestinian cities like Hebron and Yatta and by the Israeli settlements in the area, like Kiryat Arba, Karmel and Maon.

On a good day, working here from 5 a.m. until dusk, the boys make about $4.75 apiece.

Muhammad Rabai, 23, in salvaged camouflage pants and a dirty baseball cap with the gothic “D” of the Detroit Tigers, is the unacknowledged boss of the dump. He drives the bulldozer and gets a small city salary, but he and three relatives also salvage trash, trying to feed a family of 25. “It’s a very difficult life,” he said. “But don’t call me the boss. We try to be friends here; we try to be equals.”

Rabah Rabai, from the same large clan, used to work in Israel as a builder, making more than $650 a month, but he can no longer get an entry permit. He is 48, with a grizzly gray beard, an asthma inhaler and thickly scarred arms. He sat in an old Ford tractor, once blue, pulling a small cart.

“It’s our taxi,” he said. “It’s our Jaguar.” He comes every morning before dawn with three children from a village 13 kilometers, or 8 miles, away. Most of the other children walk, some of them 24 kilometers, then sleep in makeshift shacks or blanket tents, before walking home again for the Muslim Sabbath.

He wore a stained cap bearing the symbol of Fatah. He said he had found it in the trash. Muhammad Rabai interrupted, saying: “We don’t care for any of them, for Fatah or Hamas. We’re from the party of bread.”

Muhammad al-Ammour, 42, used to work in Israel as a painter, making $35 to $50 a day. Working here with two of his children, he brings home around $12. Most of the income is from scrap metal, sold for 2.2 cents a pound.

“If we don’t work, we can’t live,” he said. “Sad to say, but our life is the garbage. Our future is the garbage.”

Asked if the Palestinian Authority helps them, he laughed. “No one from the authority comes to check on us; no one really cares,” he said. “The Palestinian nation gets aid and help from abroad, but we never see any.”

Like all the men and boys here, only a few of whom have gloves, Ammour is covered with scars, especially on his hands, arms and legs, from sharp metal and broken glass. Many wear salvaged hats against the sun and scarves to cover their mouths from the fumes and acrid smoke of the nearly nightly fires that burn the picked-over garbage. Many of the boys seem malnourished, with filmy eyes staring from filthy faces.

Last week, Hijazi Rabai, 27, married with four children, died here when his old tractor fell over and crushed him. He was a sheik of his village, and everyone said he had a beautiful voice when he made the call for evening prayer.

“Even people close to me, my relatives, mock and humiliate my family,” Ammour said. “Whoever works in the garbage is garbage himself – that’s what they think. But some of those people work as spies, collaborators and thieves, but they consider us – the honest workers – less than them.”

Ammour has eight children. But he is known as Abu Fadi, the father of Fadi, 19, his eldest son, one of triplets.

Fadi, who has the bright green eyes of his clan, is trying to go to college. He has worked here since he was little, he said, along with his father and two brothers. He started college, then quit for lack of money. Now, he is taking courses in the evening, through Al Quds Open University in Yatta, along with his brother Tamer. Everyone in this little world is proud of them.

Halima, their triplet sister, is engaged to a cousin. Their mother, Sabah, 37, said: “She will not get married soon. They need to wait and establish themselves. It will be a long time until they manage to do that.”

The Ammour home in Yatta has two rooms for the family of 10 and no windows, just holes in the walls covered with yellow fabric that does little to block the sun.

The larger room is covered in mattresses. In the smaller room, set carefully on a green, sparkly cloth, is Fadi’s prized possession: a computer, which he patched together from parts salvaged from the dump.

With a small boxy screen, and wires showing through cracks in the plastic, it functions.

Fadi, scrubbed clean, set the computer to play some music; his little brother, 5, did a break dance. Then Fadi and Tamer joined in.

“You see?” Fadi said, smiling large. “Good things come out of the garbage.”