How they spent their summer vacation
By Gideon Levy
Friday, July 25, 2003
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
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
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
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.