Revisiting a BBC story about charcoal

Back in October 2007 the BBC’s Martin Asser – then stationed in the Middle East – wrote an article entitled “Palestinians struggle in dire straits” (still available, of course, online), a significant proportion of which was devoted to the subject of charcoal production in the area surrounding Jenin. 

Asser charcoal

It was a sorry tale – and one which left readers with the impression that Israel’s decision to build the anti-terrorist fence near Jenin in 2002 was the reason that local residents had to take to such unhealthy work. 

“The fumes are why there is nearly twice the normal rate for chronic respiratory disease here and higher mortality, not only among burners but also Yabad’s 20,000 inhabitants.

But charcoal is one of the few sources of income available in what has become a severely economically depressed area.

Jenin and surrounding villages used to rely on three main activities, agriculture, labouring jobs in Israel and employment in the Palestinian Authority.

But the area is now sealed off from Israel by the West Bank barrier, water is scarce for irrigation and the PA has little money to pay employees.”

Only right down near the bottom of the report was a begrudging mention made of why Israel had to build the security fence.

“Wherever you go in the northern West Bank the stories are the same.

Residents tell of a once-thriving region doing lucrative trade over the Green Line, not just with the Israeli Arabs who predominate in the plains to the north of the West Bank, but Israeli Jews too.

The West Bank barrier – built to prevent terrorist attacks, according to Israel – has stopped all that.” [emphasis added]

Asser’s ability to inject so much pathos into a story about supposedly Israeli-imposed Palestinian poverty stands in stark contrast to his lack of any comparative sympathy – or even belief – concerning the loss of Israeli lives in the many terror attacks which originated in Jenin. It is perhaps difficult for many people in the West today to remember that terrible era of almost daily terror attacks and to recollect that the call to construct the anti-terrorist fence came from the Israeli people and their representatives across the political spectrum rather than from the government. 

“Meretz MK Amnon Rubinstein […] said that “every day that goes by without a fence brings us a sea of tears.”

Despite the fact that Asser mentioned that the main interviewee in his story had been working in the charcoal industry since 1992 – ten years before construction of the security fence was begun – he did not inform audiences about that industry’s much longer history in the specific area. He also failed to inform readers how much of an environmental hazard the charcoal factories were for the entire region. 
This short film below from 2011 tells a little of the history of the charcoal industry in the Jenin region, the problems it has caused for local residents and the efforts made over the past few years in order to improve their quality of life. 


Unlicensed charcoal plants have now been closed down and new production methods brought into use, dramatically reducing pollution in the area. The cooperation between international aid organisations, the Israeli Civil Administration and the Palestinian Authority which has brought about this improvement in the lives of local residents and in the environment should surely be worth a report by any media organization committed to accurate and impartial representation of the region. 

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