In the month of September 2020 Staat van Beleg could list 659 human rights violations (and 111 reports/analyses). (see our archive and the monthly violations reports of the Negotiations Affairs Department). This month we write about climate change in occupied Palestine.
Last year from 20-27 September a series of international strikes and protests to demand action be taken to address climate change took place under the name of “the Global Week for Future”. In many cities all over the world we witnessed protests during September and October. In the months that followed we saw the outbreak of Corona, later developing in a pandemic, that took most of the media coverage and the focus on climate change seemed to be gone.
For the Palestinian people these global protests were a unique opportunity to address their concerns. On 19 October Bedouin children in the West Bank joined global climate protests, calling out the Israeli occupation’s role in exacerbating the effects of climate change on Palestinians. Over a dozen protesters from the Bedouin village of Umm al-Khair in the South Hebron Hills, waved placards reading “live with the land, live like Bedouins,” in Palestine’s first Extinction Rebellion action.
While the world was occupied by Corona Israel never ceased to grab and annex Palestinian land, demolish Palestinian houses, uproot Palestinian trees/crops and destroy Palestinian infrastructure to make way for settlement plans. In a report by Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, experts said that Israel’s plan to annex 30 per cent of the occupied West Bank could exacerbate the damaging effects of climate change, including threatening the region’s strategic water supplies, endangering the food security of Palestinians and bring an end to essential cross-border environmental collaboration. A dubious approach given the urgency to tackle climate change.
We will now highlight some of the factors that plays an important role in climate change within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. (source: Al Shabaka, “Climate Change, the Occupation, and a Vulnerable Palestine” – 26 March 2019)
Why Palestinians under occupation will suffer the effects of climate change more severely?
Palestine’s fragmented political landscape poses some of the greatest challenges to coping with climate change. Three different and often conflicting entities govern the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea: the Israeli government (presiding over the modern state of Israel, occupied Jerusalem, the occupied Golan Heights, de facto Area C, and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank), the Palestinian Authority (Areas A and B in the West Bank), and Hamas (the Gaza Strip). This differentiated political and social reality has resulted in a vast imbalance in the experiences of the effects of climate change, the ability to tackle it, and the ability to produce harmonized assessments and evaluations of its effects due to poor and inconsistent data collection.
Moreover, despite the effects of climate change being broadly similar across the territory, much of the political focus and available research incorrectly treats the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as divorced from historic Palestine. Not only does this delineation ignore the Palestinian body politic, it also puts occupied Palestine – a state with non-sovereign status – in the strange position of “having to represent the future of a structure that attempts to erase them”.
The single greatest non-environmental risk facing Palestinians in the OPT is the Israeli occupation, to the extent that the United National Development Programme (UNDP) considers it an environmental “risk” in its own right. Restrictions on the free movement of people and goods, the Apartheid Wall, land grabs, settlement expansion and settler violence, and poor PA governance all threaten Palestinian water and food security and consequently increase climate change vulnerability.
It is crucial here to emphasize that the OPT is subject to the international law of belligerent occupation. Israel, as the occupying power, is legally responsible to meet the needs of the occupied population which, according to the Hague Convention, includes the guardianship of natural resources. Additionally, the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits the arbitrary destruction and appropriation of property and the destruction, removal, and disablement of civilian objects indispensable to the civilian population, including agricultural areas, drinking water installations, and irrigation works.
The occupation has thus led to maladaptive policies and practices that undermine Palestinian resilience and readiness to the threat of climate change. By contrast, Israel is well positioned to adapt to the effects of climate change and is therefore less vulnerable.
The Palestinian Authority has no sovereign jurisdiction over its natural resources or large swathes of its territory, and wields no independent political will over how to manage climate risks. Yet, paradoxically, it is tasked with addressing climate change. This renders the PA’s adaptive efforts largely insignificant and counterproductive.
Climate change will affect most sectors of the OPT’s economy, but one of its greatest casualties will be water availability and quality. First, freshwater resources – surface and groundwater – will become more scarce as rainfall decreases. This will make it harder to replenish aquifers during periods of high population growth while simultaneously intensifying competition for water from Palestinian agriculture, illegal Israeli settlements, and industry. Reduced rainfall will also make extracting water more costly and energy intensive. Higher temperatures and increased sediment may threaten the quality of drinking water, given limited treatment facilities.
Second, since climate change increases the likelihood of intense, short periods of rainfall, as opposed to an extended wet season, flash floods are highly likely. The OPT’s existing infrastructure is not capable of supporting heavy rainfall, which could lead to flooding in urban areas due in part to inadequate drainage and sewage systems.
Water is not an apolitical resource. The occupation strains water resources and affects areas from health to industry. Palestinians’ main source of drinking water is stored groundwater, and Palestinians rely heavily on aquifers. The western, northeastern, and eastern aquifers are in the West Bank, while in Gaza, the only source of water is the coastal aquifer, which has been subject to over-extraction and pollution in recent years, risking depletion as early as next year. This is in addition to rising sea levels and the intrusion of seawater, given that Gaza lies on the Mediterranean coast.
Israel has created a complicated bureaucracy of licensing, permits, and access rights designed to control and selectively curtail Palestinians’ access to groundwater. It does this under powers granted by the 1995 Oslo II Accord – initially intended as a five-year arrangement, and still in place 24 years later – which granted Israel control over approximately 80% of water reserves in the West Bank.
In addition to preventing enough clean water from entering the Gaza Strip, Israel hinders any attempt to build or maintain water infrastructure, such as reservoirs, by restricting imports of fundamental building materials. The results are deadly: 90-95% of the water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for drinking or irrigation. Contaminated water accounts for more than 26% of all reported diseases in Gaza and is a leading cause of child mortality, at more than 12% of child deaths.
Palestinians in Gaza are forbidden from importing the materials to build desalination plants through the dual-use list, while the PA in the West Bank is hindered by project-approval hurdles imposed by the JWC and well-drilling restrictions imposed by the Oslo Accords. Desalination also raises concerns about power asymmetry in technological solutions, namely who controls the technology and how it gets apportioned.
Agriculture is a bedrock of Palestinian society. About 60% of the West Bank population lives in 500 rural villages, which are less connected to centralized infrastructure and more dependent on the surrounding area for economic productivity.
Changing rainfall patterns due to climate change pose great risk to the OPT’s agricultural productivity, as an appropriate balance of water, heat, and sunlight is imperative for efficient crop growth. About 85% of Palestinian agriculture is watered by rain, and approximately half of the water extracted from groundwater wells is used for agriculture. Increased droughts and desertification will thus directly affect the productivity of crops and livestock, while shorter growing seasons and increased water requirements will lead to higher food prices.
These effects are particularly dangerous as there is already widespread food insecurity across the OPT. In 2014, approximately 26% of households were considered either “severely or marginally” food insecure, rising to 46% in Gaza. In Gaza, rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion will harm low-lying coastal agriculture, which makes up 31% of Gaza’s total agricultural production, and will threaten food security in the already vulnerable enclave. Farmers and herders will also see their incomes and profits decline, threatening their agrarian way of life and increasing the likelihood of falling into debt and structural poverty.
The occupation damages Palestinian agriculture through land theft and population control. Israel’s expanding settlements and settler-only roads are deliberately built in key strategic locations, including on arable lands in Area C. Israeli restrictions on movement and controlled access to grazing land are further causes of the OPT’s relatively low overall yield, which is less than half of neighboring Jordan. Along with over 400 checkpoints or roadblocks in the West Bank, a complicated permit system, and the Apartheid Wall, Palestinian farmers not only have less land available for agriculture, but are also denied access to tend to it.
In Gaza, 20% of arable land is restricted from use because it falls within the Israeli-enforced security buffer zone near the border fence with Israel. In many cases, farmers and herders are obliged to buy water from more distant places, incurring higher transportation costs and wasting valuable time. Additionally, Palestinians have limited access to international markets, modern equipment, and fertilizers.
There are various adaptation options available to limit the effects of climate change on agriculture. In the West Bank, these include better water-efficiency and land-use planning. In Gaza, water-efficiency and community-level support and training would help offset the impact of overexploitation of limited resources exacerbated by climate change. The international community (mostly European countries) funds various agricultural projects in the OPT. A 2017 Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation program, for instance, aimed to ensure small scale producers’ entitlement to natural resources and access to markets. All the same, without an end to the occupation and blockade, adaptive strategies will have a very limited impact.
A Ray of Hope
We would like to end this somewhat depressing summary with a ray of hope.
Across the world, climate movements are firmly rooted on the political, social, and economic left. Their campaigning and advocacy make connections with struggles for democracy, social justice, and human rights, and speak out against racism, discrimination, nationalism, and neoliberalism. Not merely content with demanding a change in environmental policies, the global climate justice movement seeks to change economic power structures and liberate all living beings from all forms of oppression, violence, and dispossession.
Yet the Israeli climate movement often remains silent when it comes to fighting neoliberalism, racism, oppression, and the occupation and its profound ecological damage to this land and the people who live on it.
The One Climate movement promotes climate justice between the river and the sea. They believe it is only out of a sense of shared destiny, identification, and solidarity with all the victims of the regime in Israel-Palestine that will we be able to create the partnerships and critical mass that are necessary to stop the climate crisis and its effects on our region, all while promoting independence and justice for all between the river and the sea.
Here you can find some publications on Climate Change in Occupied Palestine.