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This piece describes life at the garbage dump near a Palestinian refugee camp. The dump is home to about a hundred children this summer, some as young as 10 years old. The kids sift through and fight over the rotting garbage trucked in from the nearby Jewish-only colonies; they eat and drink whatever they can, and sell the metal for scrap. As journalist Gideon Levy points out, this is an image of life that has reached a low point. 


Ha'raetz, July 25, 2003   By Gideon Levy 


About a hundred kids are spending their summer vacation at the Yatta garbage dump. Day and night, they rummage for pieces of junk and eat the remnants that fall from the trucks. They're especially fond of the trash left by the soldiers and the army. Whenever a garbage truck from the settlements or from the IDF approaches the Yatta dump, a murmur of joy is immediately heard. "Shimon, Shimon!" they cry excitedly. They know the driver from Kiryat Arba. Shimon stays inside the air-conditioned cab. The children form a circle around the truck as it backs up slowly, surrounding it on all sides, eager to get at its contents. Some even break into song, "The green car, the green car ..." But what is there to rejoice about here? 

The children direct the truck - a little forward, a little backward - until it's in just the right spot. They all wait for it to come to a complete stop. Then comes the moment they've all been waiting for: The truck dumps its load. Out comes the trash of Kiryat Arba, which is the best they have to look forward to here. They may give off a terrible stench, but the bags upon bags of trash from the settlers are a much richer trove than the trash that comes from Yatta, Samu'a or Hebron. Here, real treasures can be found - a rusted lamp, a broken pipe, disposable foil pans, a smashed car radio, even an old stun grenade. And the greatest prize of all - the motor of an industrial refrigerator. 

The ruined motor is completely covered in smelly bits of rotting food. This does not faze the children who are also covered in garbage. Together, three of them pull the motor out of the huge pile of garbage, before the envious eyes of their friends. A motor like this weighs about as much as a thousand rusty reading lamps and since life here is measured in terms of the weight of the metal, this counts as an incredible find. A little bit later, the children hoist the heavy engine onto the back of a donkey and take their treasure off to a secret hiding place, just to be on the safe side. With their bare hands, they wipe off the old food and garbage that is stuck to it and reveal its black color. Their friends meanwhile keep probing the fresh garbage with their sticks, hoping to get lucky, too. Finally, they've hit a bonanza with this truck from the settlers - and not another tractor hauling garbage from Yatta. 

Yesterday in Kiryat Arba, they ate a lot of watermelon and read a lot of Yedioth Ahronoth. And here's a big surprise: among all the cartons of kosher pizza and produce boxes are three live bullets made of brass - the most precious metal here. And here's a big, almost empty bottle of Coca Cola. Without hesitation, a boy pulls it out of the garbage, opens the cap and gulps down what's left of the soft drink. The taste of life. 

The Yatta garbage dump. The lowest place in the occupied territories. The place where the human food chain has reached the point where one man's garbage is another man's treasure. This is the summer camp of Issa Rabai and his friends. 

A blond policewoman watches residents of the Al-Fawar refugee camp who try to make their way on foot from the camp to the Hebron industrial area. A few settlers' cars pass by on the main road - which is for Jews only. The policewoman sticks her head up out of the armored jeep and points her weapon at the pedestrians - old people, young people, women and children. Every so often, she orders someone to stop, with her hand on the trigger. What does this Jewish policewoman tell the folks back home when she comes back from her assignment? 

Easing of the closure: The dirt barrier that besieges the Al-Fawar camp, that blocks all entry and exit by car for any purpose whatsoever, is sometimes moved. This happens when the IDF comes in the middle of the night to make arrests. Then and only then does a bulldozer come and move the steep mounds of dirt. When the mission is accomplished, the soldiers put the dirt barrier back in place and once again the only way to get in or out is on foot through the dusty path - no matter whether you're elderly, ill or about to give birth. The lovely houses of the nearby Beit Haggai settlement have a stunning view, and one that makes it easy to see the people forced to go everywhere on foot in the blazing heat. 

At the summer camp held at the UNRWA girls' school in Al-Fawar, sponsored by the Committee for Agricultural Relief, several dozen girls in yellow caps and white T-shirts are doing some exercises. "The Apartheid Wall" reads the inscription on the girls' shirts. The boys are planting roses and olives in the schoolyard. They wear the same shirts. There are music lessons, too, and they get to listen to Beethoven. The balding, mustachioed man in the white shirt is Mohammed Abu Warda, a teacher of Arabic and social studies and father of suicide bomber Majdi Abu Warda who blew himself up on the No. 18 bus in Jerusalem in 1996. In the summer, Mohammed is a counselor at the camp. In the afternoon, the second shift of the camp is sponsored by the "Center for the Dissemination of the Koran" - Hamas, in other words. There are 60 children in the agricultural program, and 150 in the Islamic one. They eat kebab in a pita and Tropit soft drink made by Luna Hebron. These refugee children trapped in the camp are the happiest kids around. 

Just 15 minutes away stands the Yatta dump. A big bunch of kids have gathered there. One sports an Army Radio cap, another wears a T-shirt from the Kiryat Malachi community center. They wear our rags and cast-offs, and the odd combinations one sees are alternately sad and amusing: One hat reads "Hebron Now and Forever." 

The first tractor comes from Samu'a. The trash from Samu'a is nothing to get excited about. Only a few children bother to swarm over the pile. Palestinian trash is usually more rotten and unappetizing - consisting largely of grains of rice, eggshells, potato peels and rotten tomatoes - the remains of the most basic foodstuffs. There's nothing valuable for the kids here - no metal, no clothes, no objects. In the settlements, they throw more things away. So does the IDF. Here, for example, is a bag of used lithium batteries with the IDF logo on it. But one child nevertheless comes up with a good find from the Samu'a trash: a thoroughly rusted and broken trough. 

The children's faces are black with soot. It's hard to know which is filthier - the garbage or their clothes. They only go home - to Yatta - on the weekends, to bathe and eat something more fit for human consumption. Otherwise, they are here day and night - because sometimes the trucks from the army and the settlements arrive at night. Some keep keffiyas or rags tied around their faces to ward off the stench a bit. The "well-to-do" ones wear gloves or hold tongs or metal rods at least. But the vast majority do all their rummaging with their bare hands. 

Issa Rabai is the leader of one of the gangs. His leadership is immediately evident. He gives orders and is the first to reach the pile. He has an extra finger on his right hand and a silver ring on his left. At 14, he knows that he is not the oldest kid here, but he presents himself as such. He left school at 13 and has been here ever since. He explains that in Yatta, one can get NIS 4 for a kilo of aluminum, NIS 6 for a kilo of brass and just NIS 2 for a kilo of foil pans. Even a leader like Issa doesn't make more than NIS 20 a day here. Usually it's less than that. 

The youngest one here? There are two boys who aren't so sure how old they are, but their friends say they are 10. The leader of the second gang is Majdi Issa, 18. Yesterday the two gangs fought over a piece of electric wire. The big Issa won out over the littler Issa. 

They're embarrassed and they try to deny it. Drinking from the garbage is okay, but not eating. That they'll only do far from the eyes of strangers. Issa urges them to get going: "We haven't worked yet today." Business has been tougher lately because so many more kids have come to the dump that there's less to go around. More kids are here because of the summer vacation, and there are also adults who have been driven to scrounge here because of the closure and the hunger. 

Another truck from Kiryat Arba approaches. There is great excitement. Everyone tries to grab a good position before the garbage is dumped. They shout with enthusiasm as the load is spilled. At first the stench is unbearable, but then it dissipates a bit. The kids wade in up to their knees in the fresh pile. There's not a moment to lose as they scrounge for bits of metal. They're professionals - their gazes are focused on the pile, and they poke the wet bags with their rods to see if they hold anything worthwhile. Every once in a while, a triumphal shout is heard. 

"Go to work," reads the main headline of the July 15 issue of Ma'ariv. About 50 people, most of them children and teenagers, are standing on the pile now. Usually there are more - about 100, but there's a wedding today - Firas Rabai, 20, who is normally here, is getting married. Issa, who is a friend of his, is not going to the wedding because he doesn't have the money for a gift. The groom was here at work two days ago and he'll be right back here a couple of days from now. 

This pile yields a crushed deodorant aerosol can, straight from the neighbors' armpits, a tattered pair of jeans, a polka-dotted inflatable baby pool that will find another use. The tractor diver and his companion who have come from Samu'a wear the bright vests of emergency medical personnel, perhaps to help them get through the checkpoints. Emergency garbage. Empty packages of pretzels, potato chips and frozen vegetables spill out of the trucks from the settlements. The little kids wade into the piles of refuse. The site manager, Hassan Abu Sabih, says he calls upon all people of conscience, Jews and Palestinians, to come and behold this sight. 

One boy puts his filthy fingers in his mouth and whistles to his friend to hurry up - soon the bulldozer will come and cover everything with dirt. Pieces of tin foil that once wrapped sandwiches in Kiryat Arba are now coveted property. 

A new Volvo truck from the Hebron municipality arrives. The stench is overwhelming. An old gas canister is considered a major find, as is an aluminum pot. Could they expect anything more from the garbage of Hebron? Issa hums a tune as he climbs on the Hebron truck to get a better look at its contents. "Warmest Congratulations to the Soldiers who are the Children of Haifa Municipality Employees," says a card for Israel's Independence Day that has found its way here. 

The young man in the Army Radio cap does not wish to give his name. He's embarrassed. He once worked in Holon, Ra'anana and Tel Aviv and now he's here in the garbage. Khader Rabai, the oldest of the scavengers here today, is 38. He came with his son Suheib, 13. Before the closure, Rabai worked in Israel. Four months ago, when his family - he and his wife and their eight children - had practically nothing left to eat, he started coming out to the dump. After spending NIS 5 to get there, he makes about NIS 10 a day. "There are days when you can't make a cent," he says in fluent Hebrew. 

Issa Rabai stops for a lunch break, clutching a glossy magazine. He has four-year-old quadruplet siblings at home: Yasser, Arafat, Suha and Fathi (the name of PA Chairman Arafat's brother). Issa sits down on the ground and stares at the pictures. Every once in a while, he wets a dirty finger with his mouth before turning another page. "Guide to Vacations in Israel" is the title of the booklet, which has been plucked from the garbage. He pauses for a moment at a picture of the bedroom of a bed-and-breakfast in Neve Bar: "Close to home, far from reality," the caption reads. His expression turns gloomy as he takes in the huge bed covered in white cotton sheets and the shot of the "most romantic French restaurant." 

"If only I had a house like that," he mutters. 

"Instead of having them climb all over you the whole summer, bring the children to the attractions of nature," urges an ad from the Nature and Parks Authority, with a picture of clear blue waters. Issa grimaces. Then he gets up suddenly, tears the pages of the booklet, throws them on the ground and stomps on them, as if to make them disappear. 

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