RAMALLAH, West Bank – After years of neglect, the Palestinians are going green.
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 this city of 30,000 north of Jerusalem.
Trying to raise awareness, officials are encouraging thousands of children to collect compost, visit recycling centers and plant trees. The hope is that the young generation will learn good habits, and maybe teach their parents something about conservation.
"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.
On a sunny spring afternoon, a dozen kindergartners gathered at the Friends School in Ramallah to play with worms fed on their sandwich scraps to produce soil fertilizer.
The kids have plastic lunch boxes and reusable water bottles, and make field trips to a green facility where they learn about wastewater recycling, solar panels and gardening.
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 the challenges are many.
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.
What is collected lands in an unplanned, unregulated landfill in an upscale neighborhood. A proper landfill planned for a nearby village has been held up for more than 10 years because Israel delayed approval and because the owners of the land were scattered around the world, Aljamal said. The Israeli government body that administers planning in the rural West Bank confirmed a permit has not yet been issued.
A plan to truck rubbish to a site farther north will cost $1 million a year, Aljamal said, and to afford it Ramallah has shelved plans to build an urban park.
The rest of the West Bank faces greater hurdles.
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 of 200 officers modeled on a similar unit in Jordan.
He said his office is integrating green values into schools and summer camps around the West Bank, but the education effort is 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.
Nader Khatib, director of the Palestinian office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, said the West Bank has only one environmentally safe landfill, in the north. 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 Jewish settlers.
Khatib predicted trouble, saying: "If the Israelis dump their garbage there, that's totally illegal because the settlements are illegal."
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.
"The Israeli occupation will not continue forever," Khatib said. "In the long term when there is an independent Palestinian state, I think about the future generations of Palestinians, who are entitled to live in dignity, harmony and a safe environment."
Sami Backleh, who teaches nature courses at al-Quds University, already notices a change. He says it's easier to get Palestinian government support for environmental workshops and summer camps for children.
As for his students, "Ten years back when I would say I want to go hiking, people asked me, 'what's that?'" Backleh said. "Now, there's hundreds of groups every week."