Huge explosion and fire in illegal Israeli chemical factory in Tulkarm on Thursday night

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According to a Palestinian news report from the Al Fajer TV website (Arabic, with lots of images) and eyewitnesses on the ground, late Thursday night there was a massive explosion followed by a huge fire in an illegal Israeli industrial area located beside the Palestinian city of Tulkarm in the occupied West Bank.

At the time of writing (10pm, a day later), for some reason there has been no English language reporting about this event. I am hearing via a friend visiting Palestine that residents have been advised by local television reports to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning.

I do not speak Arabic, so the following report is compiled by using Google Translate – apologies in advance for any errors.

Explosion, fire and aftermath

The Al Fajer report says that a large cloud of smoke covered the sky of the city and the villages of Tulkarem last night, after a huge fire broke out in a nylon factory in the illegal Israeli industrial area Nizanei Shalom, west of Tulkarm. Nizanei Shalom (which means ‘Buds of Peace’ in Hebrew) is a controversial – even by illegal settlement standards – area, which houses a number of Israeli industrial and chemical plants.

A big explosion echoed from inside the industrial zone at 11pm on Thursday night, resulting in a dramatic fire and a two hour power outage for residents on the outskirts of the city.

Palestinian civil defence crews and medical staff were scrambled to the west of the the city to check on the health of citizens and provide them with protection, under the direction of Tulkarm’s Director General of Health, Saed Hanoun.

Incredibly, witnesses in the vicinity of the industrial zone reported that there was a large presence of Israeli occupation forces in the area, and military patrols fired tear gas canisters at local people who went to see what was occurring.

Firefighters worked throughout the night and the fire was largely extinguished in the early hours of the morning. However, Fulla Jallad, a local Palestinian woman told me that “the structure is still on fire and the smoke is obviously [still] poisoning the air”.

Health and environmental hazards

Palestinian Officials have warned of health and the environment hazards in Tulkarem citizens in the city. The have called on those living near factories to get out of their homes because of the serious consequences resulting from the thick smoke and the rain of falling ash in the aftermath, which constitute a potential danger to public health and the environment.

One local Palestinian official, Jamal Said, told the official PA news service Wafa that they had long warned of the danger of these plants to the health of citizens, due to emissions of serious toxins, adding that the seriousness of this fire lies not only in the phenomenal amount of smoke, but in the explosions of which there were several inside from inside the plant because of the huge fire.

Mr. Said added that the fire was out of control, and pointed out that the Israelis occupation forces had requested help from the Palestinian civil defence crews, who had put their priorities in the protection of Palestinian citizens and property in the western and southern region near the industrial zone

Mr. Said stressed the need for immediate intervention of the international community to ensure that these dangerous plants are fully removed from the Tulkarm area.

The Legal Counsel of the Environmental Quality Authority in Tulkarem, Mr. Murad, said that he had warned of the warning of the danger of these plants during a workshop held in Tulkarem only two days ago, and he called on all international bodies to assume their responsibilities towards what is happening as a result of the dangerous environmental contamination in the Tulkarem area. He said that this fire is clear evidence that Tulkarm is exposed to environmental dangers due to the burning of toxic substances, calling on citizens to beware of the smoke.

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Nizanei Shalom – One of Israel’s toxic little West Bank secrets

Initially based in Israel, several of the Nizanei Shalom, aka Geshuri, industrial park’s current inhabitants were closed down by Israeli court order for pollution violations during the 1980s. In 1987 Geshuri Industries, a manufacturer of pesticides and fertilizers originally located in Kfar Saba, was the first to relocate, moving their Keshet Prima factory there after closure by Israeli authorities earlier that decade. The Dixon industrial gas plants, formerly of Netanya industrial zone in Israel, followed and now there are almost a dozen such factories in this industrial zone, including Atzei Shitim, The Solor Group and Yamit E.L.I. Filtration and Water Treatment. According to a report by RT, the factories produce fibres, chemicals, glass, paint and materials for construction, and they operate 24 hours a day.

Many of the factories have come under severe criticism for both their environmental records and the treatment of their mainly Palestinian workforces.

Tulkarm’s General Director of Health, Saed Hanoun says that industrial by-products of these factories are dangerous to the health of citizens and the environment because of the damage caused by the vapours, which may be responsible for some serious diseases developing amongst the population, and he added that these “plants should be removed immediately as they internationally prohibited”. Nor is this the first such explosion and fire; in an interview with RT in 2009, Mr. Hanoun said that for three days that May, thick clouds hung over Tulkaram after a previous explosion in one of the factories.

According to Irish activist-journalist Tommy Donnellan, who visited the area in 2010, and documented local people’s stories on video, “[the lands] in the immediate vicinity of the factory have been polluted to the point where they are no longer agriculturally viable. Trees in the area are decaying; those that remain alive exhibit stunted growth. Pollution from the factory also widely affects other agricultural land in Tulkarm and has seeped into underground water sources in the area. Noxious carcinogenic fumes from the Geshuri [Keshet Prima] factory have also adversely affected the health of the population. Respiratory problems and eye infections, which are most likely to afflict the very young and elderly, are the most commonly reported problems. It is also believed by medical experts that the pollution caused by the plant has led to cancer cases, although to confirm this no studies have been carried out to date”.

Mr Donnella also said that the “chemical complex is beyond the control and power of the [Palestinian Authority] as the Israeli occupying [so-called] ‘Civil Administration’ watch over and protect it – where for 11 months of the year the prevailing west to east winds blow the emissions into Tulkakem and in the one month when the winds shift direction and blow from east to west into Israel the factories cease their carcinogenic activities”.

One worker in the zone, Ahmed, interviewed by Corporate Watch, also in 2010, has stated that the “factories are dangerous in that they pollute the environment … they are also unsafe for the workers, they do not adhere to any health and safety regulations as they are based in occupied territory and there is nothing to protect workers. Accidents are common”.

Workers’ and locals’ rights abused and safety compromised

Another worker, Rashid, went on to say that the “Solor factory is very unsafe. Three workers have died – in 2000, 2002 and 2008 – from burns sustained from gas related fires at the factory” and that “Solor workers receive 90 shekels a day, well under the Israeli minimum wage. Before we started to organise in the factory we were paid 65 shekels a day”.

Indeed, the area can also be more immediately dangerous to those not even working vicinity. According to the General Union of Petrochemical Workers in Palestine, a young man, 18-year-old Hamza Walid Haloub, was seriously wounded by live army fire in March this year while walking near the industrial park. Dr. Khaled Saleh of Thabet Thabet Hospital said a bullet punctured his lung and the injury was so serious that Mr. Haloub had to be transferred to Nablus hospital for emergency treatment.

A microcosm of the iniquity of the occupation

Nizanei Shalom is a microcosm of the iniquity of Israel’s occupation; local Palestinians were forced from their lands in the 1980s so that illegal building could begin; the zone exploits the far cheaper Palestinian labour force, so economically crippled by decades of occupation that they have little choice but to work under awful conditions; in practice, a separate legal/safety system exists than inside Israel, with these highly polluting factories are given the all clear by Israeli authorities; the result is that it is the Palestinians of Tulkarm who suffer the environmental, economic and health problems and dangers arising from the operations of the plants. And Nizanei Shalom is not the only such zone, there are several in the occupied West Bank, pointing to the importance and inextricable nature of these parks for the Israeli economy.

The existence of these illegal colonial settlement-factories are war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and should be shut down on that basis alone. That they are highly dangerous and possibly in contravention of international pollution standards should add an urgency for the international community to take immediate meaningful action to ensure that they are.

Al Haq video about the Nizanei Shalom industrial zone

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