On Thursday the city of Tulkarm began the first of its Land Day demonstrations – a national event held on 30th March each year to commemorate the killing of seven Palestinians citizens of Israel by Israeli soldiers in 1976, during protests over land confiscation.
The city began by replanting trees along Al Khadouri street – once a tree-lined avenue, now barren because the trees were destroyed by Israeli bombing during the first and second Intifadas. Organized by a collaboration of local and national institutions, such as PARC, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Farmer’s Union, the local municipality and Palestine Technical University, around one hundred conifer trees were prepared to rehabilitate the street.
Approximately forty children from local primary schools, internationals, Israelis and local Tulkarm identities such as the mayor, all took part in the planting, which extended from the site where the first tree was destroyed, all the way to the Israeli-owned Geshuri chemical factories that cause enormous pollution and health problems for the residents of Tulkarm. Asme, from the Public Relations department of Palestine Technical University, explained that involving the children in the action by getting them to plant trees helped to “explain to the children the importance of the land; to mark the anniversary of Land Day in an active way. When the child plants the tree, and every day he sees the tree, it will be very good. He will watch it growing.”
Once the street was completely re-lined with trees (identical in species to those destroyed), approximately 150 demonstrators marched the length of the street, in the direction of the Geshuri chemical factories, and then along the compound wall of the factories themselves, to protest against the presence of such dangerously polluting factories in Tulkarm.
The Israeli chemical factories, including factories for ammonia, fertilizers, plastics, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, were originally built within Israel, near Tel Aviv, explains local activist and journalist Abdul Karim. They were forced to shutdown in 1984, however, because of the danger of the pollutants they produce. They were relocated to Tulkarm in 1987, onto land confiscated by the Israeli government, a large percentage of which belonged to the agricultural college of An Najar university. The local residents of Tulkarm are not the only ones concerned about the dangerous pollution that purportedly gives Tulkarm one of the highest rates of cancer in the West Bank (some claim in the world) – Abdul Karim reports that Israelis on the other side of the factories (which border on Israel and are in fact surrounded by the separation wall) protested against the factories also. However, because the location is within the West Bank, Israeli authorities apparently claim that it is out of their jurisdiction. The Israeli’s protests did, however, grant one concession: now every year in May, (the one month in the year when the winds blow from East to West, instead of from West to East) the factories are forced to halt their operations, so that nearby Israeli’s do not suffer from the pollution that is blown across Tulkarm for the other eleven months of the year.
Demonstrators gathered at a disused gas station across from the factories – damaged by Israeli army tanks in 2002, and forcibly abandoned along with all of the other shops and restaurants along this once bustling strip, due to persistent army presence and firing from 2001-2003, when the area became a combat zone.
The owner of the abandoned gas station addressed the crowd, explaining that what happened to his building is reflective of what is occurring across the entire West Bank, and called for the chemical factories to be uprooted. Jamal Said, advisor to the governor of Tulkarm, then spoke of the high cancer rates in Tulkarm, and the general negative effects of the chemical factories on the health of those living in all of Tulkarm, but especially those living close to the factories.
These actions marked the first in a week of Land Day activities for Tulkarm, which include two more demonstrations against the separation wall, as well as photo exhibitions and festivals throughout the city.