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June 17, 2024
Social Justice

Why Palestine is an ecological issue

Insight by Thomas Aureliani, researcher at the University of Milan

Among the flood of harrowing images that have come from Gaza, there is a video that may have escaped the attention of most people who follow the news from the Strip daily: IDF snipers hit three sheep crossing a road in Khan Younis with several rifle shots. Amid the rubble and debris of the bombings, the animals collapse to the ground, lifeless, one after the other. Why would the Israeli army need to target those sheep?

The sequence of images, more than many words, aptly represents the ecological implications of Israel's war on Gaza and settlement colonialism in Palestine. Any form of life native to the region is potentially seen as an enemy, a resource to be taken, a space to be plundered, a memory to be erased. The non-human and the environment are tools for reproducing the Zionist colonial project in Palestine, just as they have been in other contexts distant in time or space.

Colonization, wars, clashes, and resistance in Palestine can indeed be conceived as a single and enduring conflict of ecological distribution because it materializes through the expropriation of land, water, and other natural resources and because it also relies on the unequal distribution of benefits, risks, and environmental damages between Israeli citizens (including settlers) and Palestinians. For these reasons, the concept of ecological apartheid has been introduced. The segregation system is fueled by an array of crimes, damages, and environmental inequalities meticulously organized by Zionism: land confiscation and land grabbing; replacing local crops with imported vegetation, starting from traditional seed varieties; violent appropriation of natural resources; construction of impacting and excluding infrastructure like the 1,500 kilometers of roads connecting only Israeli colonies; construction of a 760-kilometer separation wall that impacts natural ecosystems causing loss of biodiversity (it was erected at the expense of about 1.5 million felled trees); transfer of polluting companies and disposal of Israeli waste in Palestinian territories; confiscation of Palestinian-owned animals like camels, donkeys, goats, and sheep; systematic destruction of ancient olive groves. And the list could go on.

However, the ecological conflict presupposes the presence of some form of opposition to the quantitative and/or qualitative reduction of available environmental resources. Hence, the Palestinian resistance to settlement colonization, in its various configurations and experiences, can be seen as a form of struggle for environmental, ecological, and interspecies justice.

But how is the system of ecological apartheid structured and what have been its consequences? Through direct and striking violence – expressed, for example, through wars and the environmental impacts they derive from – and what Professor Rob Nixon has called slow violence, i.e., the gradual violence of environmental pollution, silent and exponential but often invisible. The latter is a form of violence with delayed destructiveness, corrosive and normally not perceived as such, and it reveals itself through the dumping of toxic waste, deforestation, extractivism, or the prolonged subtraction of vital resources. Both forms of violence have manifested during the recent history of Palestine.

Colonialism and Environmental Impacts

After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba – the expulsion of about 750,000 Palestinians from 500 villages – the Jewish National Fund (JNF) initiated a reforestation program and the replacement of native flora and agricultural crops (olives, figs, almonds) with European pines and cypresses, ill-suited to the local climate, highly fire-prone, and biodiversity foes since their acidic leaves prevent the growth of other plants. As historian Pappé shows, a sort of colonial greenwashing was devised: these green lungs, an Israeli triumph of environmentalism, were specifically located on the ancient Palestinian villages destroyed and displaced, not only eliminating the flora and local productions but also the memory of those communities. A parallel operation to the replacement of Arabic names of villages, valleys, parks, springs, streams, and mountains with Hebrew ones was carried out by the “Names Committee,” a subdivision of the JNF. In Israel, ecological consciousness, Zionist ideology, and the erasure of the past often went hand in hand. Ethnic cleansing has also materialized in a sort of ecological cleansing that continues today. NGOs Pengon and Friends of the Earth Palestine estimate that in the last 20 years more than half a million trees have been cut down by settlers or the Israeli army, most of them olives.

An interesting and valuable mode of resistance to the extermination of local flora and crops, as well as to the introduction of synthetic chemical products in agriculture, has been developed by various associative realities and ordinary people who try to preserve ancestral seeds, for example, by opening libraries where these are stored and borrowed by farmers. Examples include the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library (PHSL), the library of native seeds of Palestine, and the Union of Agricultural Workers Committee (UAWC) which has established a bank of native Palestinian seeds.

The land grab and the attack on Palestinian sources of subsistence have perhaps been the main tools used by Zionism. Inch by inch, settlement colonialism aims to alter the ecological conditions of the space, the landscape, and to fuel what is called “territoriality,” i.e., the ability to influence or control people, phenomena, and relationships by delimiting and exercising control over a geographical area. The control and reshaping of space, the physical and human environment, but also the built environment is fundamental to Israel's strategy of domination. Israeli architect Eyal Weizman refers to this as “spatiocide,” referring to architecture as a tool of power of the Jewish state over the indigenous Palestinian population.

Today, 65% of the land in the West Bank is controlled by the occupation, with 300 illegal settlements inhabited by about 700,000 Jewish settlers perfectly connected by roads for exclusive use, while Palestinians contend with the very heavy restrictions on mobility: the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has documented 645 physical obstacles to circulation in the West Bank, including Jerusalem, such as constantly manned checkpoints by Israeli forces or private security companies, roadblocks, barriers, and walls. In the Gaza Strip, 17% of the total area (35% of its arable land and 85% of its marine waters) falls within the “ARA” limited access areas imposed by Israel, where farmers, shepherds, and fishermen cannot carry out their activities. The economic and social damages are immense, considering only the fact that the application of the ARA has led to a 65% decrease in the number of fishermen over the last few decades, directly affecting over 23,000 Palestinian family units. The ongoing genocide is evidently doing the rest.

A thorough study by Forensic Architecture, an interdisciplinary research group founded at Goldsmiths University of London by Weizman, highlights the extent of the environmental destruction of the war. About 38-48% of tree coverage and agricultural lands are destroyed or unusable. Before October 7, farms and orchards covered about 170 square kilometers (65 square miles), i.e., 47% of the total area of the Strip, while by the end of February 2024, more than 65 square kilometers had been destroyed, i.e., 38% of that land. Given the presence of about 7,500 greenhouses, an indispensable source of subsistence for Palestinians, about 23% of the total has been completely destroyed. The destruction of local agriculture is not an unintended consequence of the war, but a precise strategy of annihilation of the population of Gaza that is in line with actions such as the spraying of herbicides on crops and direct attacks on farmers.

The progressive destruction of local crops and the expropriation of land have traveled hand in hand, especially since the occupation of 1967, with the disparity in access to natural resources and their looting. Water in particular is a continuous source of tension, frustration, and discomfort for the Palestinian population: it is estimated that about 85% of the water resources of the West Bank are controlled by Israel. The inequality in access has been institutionalized by the Oslo accords of 1995. The agreement, still in force although originally conceived as a five-year agreement, provides that 80% of the water from the West Bank pumped from the aquifer is intended for Israeli use and the remaining 20% for Palestinian use. Today this distribution is even more anachronistic and unequal: it does not take into account the increase in the Palestinian population in the West Bank by about 75% since the year of the agreement. Moreover, Palestinians extract less water than specified in the agreement not only due to various technical difficulties but also and above all due to obstacles posed by Israel and the settlers. For example, only between 2008 and 2022 about 950 cisterns, wells, and collection tanks were demolished or confiscated. These conditions force the Palestinian Authority to purchase large quantities of water directly from Mekorot (the Israeli national water company) at high prices.

Infrastructure of Segregation

In Gaza, the situation is even more tragic, and it was even before the ongoing conflict that devastated the already fragile water and sanitation infrastructure of the Strip. The blockade imposed by Israel since 2007 on materials considered “dual use,” such as construction materials, did not allow the repair of water and sanitation infrastructure in Gaza heavily damaged by Israeli bombings of previous wars (2008-2009; 2014). Moreover, about 97% of the water in the Strip, coming directly from the coastal aquifer, is unsuitable for human consumption because it is polluted. Contaminated water causes 26% of all diseases in Gaza and is one of the main causes of child mortality. The disparity becomes even more pronounced when observing daily per capita water consumption and availability. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is 86.3 liters per day: 89 in the West Bank and 82.7 in the Gaza Strip (data from 2021). In Gaza, considering the population increase and calculating the quantities of water suitable for human use, the per capita quota of fresh water is reduced to only 21.3 liters per day (the minimum standard of the World Health Organization is 100 liters daily).

In contrast, the Israeli citizen has about 300 liters of water per day (about three times more than a Palestinian) while a settler has about seven times more. Despite living just a few kilometers apart, the disparities in access to a primary resource like water are evident and fuel the system of ecological apartheid, which is in turn supported by an asymmetric distribution of environmental costs and damages.

Regarding the appropriation of energy resources, in the Eastern Mediterranean and off Gaza there is a large area of gas exploration which partly belongs to Palestine, and over which Israel has instead arrogated the right to decide the fate through the concession to two groups of companies, including the Italian ENI. The license was obtained in the first weeks of the Israeli attack on the Strip, at the end of October 2023. A full 62% of the maritime exploration zones assigned to ENI are Palestinian, but the royalties will be paid to Israel if the operation materializes. Extraction and subtraction, exclusion, war, and robbery often go in the same direction even at the geopolitical level.

Another particularly evident issue that amplifies the gap of inequalities is the environmental pollution caused by companies and the disposal of waste. Since the 1980s, several Israeli factories have moved to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, also thanks to tax incentives promoted by the Jewish state and less restrictive environmental legislation. A historical case, among many others, is that of Geshuri, an Israeli agrochemical company that produces pesticides and fertilizers. The company was originally located in the coastal Israeli city of Netanyana, but was closed by court order in 1982 after residents complained about the toxic emissions from its plants and was transferred to a confiscated plot on the outskirts of the Palestinian city of Tulkarem, in the northeast of the West Bank. Epidemiological and ethnographic studies have shown that Palestinian residents of Tulkarem have high rates of incidence of diseases such as cancer, eye infections, and respiratory anomalies due to the unbreathable air, poisoning of the groundwater and surrounding land, and discharge of toxic waste.

In the Palestinian Territories, waste of all kinds from Israel and the colonies is dumped in violation of international law. Sewage sludge, medical waste, spent oils, solvents, metals, electronic waste, and batteries end up beyond the green line: the West Bank has become a true sacrifice zone, Israel’s trash can. According to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, there are at least 15 Israeli waste treatment facilities installed in the West Bank, six of which process highly polluting hazardous waste, while there are at least 70 illegal waste disposal sites. These are also used by some municipalities under Palestinian control, whose landfills (often forced to also dispose of the waste from the colonies) can no longer contain the waste produced. In Gaza, the waste situation has deteriorated since the Iron Swords operation launched by Israel after October 7, 2023. About 70,000 tons have accumulated, with about 60 informal landfills and 100,000 cubic meters of sewage per day dumped into the sea. Not to mention the climate consequences of the approximately 70,000 tons of bombs dropped by Israel on the Strip from October 7 to date: the emissions generated in the first 120 days were higher than those emitted annually by the 26 nations most vulnerable to climate change in the world.

A Territory Sacrificable by the Neocolonial Oppression System

The slow violence of pollution and resource subtraction operates, as seen, in sync with the direct and brutal violence of wars. Palestine is thus a pressing and alarming ecological issue. It is the representation on a reduced scale of the environmental inequalities present both locally and globally, a context in which the delocalization of environmental risks and damages (but also health, socioeconomic, and political) towards territories considered sacrificial becomes a strategy of domination and perpetuation of a neocolonial and neoliberal system based on the plundering of resources.

In reference to the ongoing genocide, Forensic Architecture speaks of “ecocide” since these are deliberate actions that are causing widespread and long-term damage to the natural environment. Although it has not yet entered the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as an independent crime, Israel's actions against the environment in Gaza could still fall under the category of war crime, since it constitutes a war crime to "deliberately launch attacks in the knowledge that such attacks will cause [...] extensive damage to civilian property or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment".

Aside from what has been happening since October 7, the entire issue of Palestine should be reinterpreted using this concept, given the depth of the overall damage and the deliberate intent of the perpetrators in inflicting them. Ecocide should thus encompass all the criminal practices that for decades have been destroying and damaging the ecosystem and the natural environment in Palestine in a widespread, severe, systematic, and especially intentional manner. Unfortunately, the evidence is extensive and plentiful.


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