How One Photographer Captured Burning Issues Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide

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Early one morning in April, I was jolted awake when Maysoon Sweity burst into the room. I knew what she was going to say before she said it — I could already smell the acrid odor of scorched plastic.

“Get up, there’s a burn!”

A half-mile away, past her sprawling backyard filled with olive, lemon and pomegranate trees, a massive plume of black smoke billowed from the base of the concrete slabs separating her Palestinian village from Israel.

For nearly two decades, a cadre of local Palestinians have burned Israeli electronic waste — primarily insulated electrical cables — to extract valuable metals for resale and to dispose of the leftover scraps.

The fires are an offshoot of a vast, robust, informal sector that recycles and refurbishes e-waste and electronics imported from Israel, yet they have had an outsized impact on Palestinian villages and nearby Israeli towns.

I lived in the town of Beit Awwa in the southern West Bank for almost a month across seven visits between November 2017 and April 2019. I photographed the burns, the Palestinians affected by them, and the broader e-waste sector that has become an unlikely boon for thousands of Palestinians struggling economically amid the Israeli occupation.

On my first trip, I joined Dr. Yaakov Garb, an environmental scientist from Israel’s Ben Gurion University, during one of his many visits to the area. Dr. Garb has studied the sector extensively and developed close relationships with the community. He and a coalition of Israelis and Palestinians were in the midst of facilitating an ambitious grass-roots project to stop the burns and sustainably reform the sector.

The urgency was clear: People were sick, and burn sites were scattered throughout the villages. Studies by Dr. Garb and his research partners suggested this was no coincidence.

To me — an American-Israeli who grew up between the D.C. suburbs of Maryland and Israel — the burns, the noble attempt to stop them, the little-known e-waste sector and the community enduring despite the circumstances defied the common tropes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It felt like a story worth telling.

To report and photograph in any community — especially where people are undergoing significant hardship — it is critical to develop relationships and build trust. Achieving that here was going to be a slow, deliberate process, especially because I speak Hebrew, not Arabic, and very few villagers speak English.

Through the invaluable assistance of local translators whom I met via Dr. Garb, I spoke with dozens of people — in living rooms and medical clinics, at scrapyards, on bustling streets.

When I was without a translator, the shared language between the villagers and me was most often Hebrew. I was initially concerned about speaking it publicly.

A monument to a Palestinian who attacked Israelis in Hebron years ago, which occupies the center of a roundabout near the entrance to Beit Awwa, was not reassuring. Every time I passed it, I was reminded of the legacy of violence that has scarred both sides of the conflict.

Yet the more I spoke Hebrew the more I felt trusted, and the more doors opened. I had arrived as an American-Israeli in a Palestinian village, but identities quickly faded as mutual trust and respect superseded political inclinations and suspicion.

Over time, villagers came to recognize me and understood that I cared not only about the story, but also about the community. I attended a wedding and a funeral, shared countless cups of coffee and meals, and on one occasion cooked dinner for Mrs. Sweity and her family.

In conversation, villagers repeated similar sentiments: People want decent work so they can take care of their families; they want to breathe clean air and live in peace with Israelis.

By my last trips in January and April, the binational efforts to stop the burns had collapsed over political differences despite support from both governments. Fires were a nearly daily occurrence. Waking up to the smell of burned plastic was common.

Though I did not expect to end this project by documenting a return to the status quo, I’m still hopeful. I witnessed firsthand the willingness of Israelis and Palestinians to work together across the divide.

Ahmad Sweity, a member of Mrs. Sweity’s extended family who was born and raised in Beit Awwa, echoed a feeling shared across the villages and beyond the West Bank’s border: “We’re living in one house. If it goes up in flames, we all burn.”

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