Environmental Justice in Palestine: Rights of Natives to Their Environment Versus Colonial Onslaught
MAZIN B. QUMSIYEH
‘…it’s a Zionist paradox. We came here to redeem a land and we end up contaminating it.’ Alon Tal, Founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Beyer, 1998; Tal, 2002).
Although Palestinians have long identified their relationship to their land as a key aspect of their struggle for self-determination, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is rarely discussed as a struggle for environmental justice. Environmental injustice is now widely accepted as a main factor in all conflict zones and is increasingly relevant in the case of Palestine. The enormous disparity in power and wealth between Israelis and Palestinians – the GDP of Palestinians under Israeli rule is 1/8th that of the Israelis who share with them the space of historic Palestine – has as much impact on the Palestinians’s natural environment as it does on their political rights (Qumsiyeh 2013; Qumsiyeh and Isaac 2012). In this short article I wish to highlight some key issues of environmental justice related to the settler colonial nature of the Israeli state and how we as Palestinians might challenge these issues and muster international support to deal with them.
Selected issues of Palestinian Environmental Justice
Colonial apartheid infrastructure: When the state of Israel was created, over 500 Palestinian villages and towns were ethnically cleansed (Pappe, 2006). Aside from the direct human cost, this itself involved a process of environmental destruction. In place of native communities and orchards consisting of figs, almonds, carobs, olives, hawthorn, and oak trees, these areas were cleared and European pine trees were planted. This caused massive ecological and other devastation not to mention the susceptibility of these trees to fires. The draining of the Hula Wetlands led to the disappearance of 119 species and the diversion of the Jordan valley waters from Lake Tiberias via the so-called ‘Israel national water carrier’ devastated the Jordan Valley.
In the 1967 occupied areas, the 1993 Oslo agreements that were supposed to lead to a viable Palestinian entity/state resulted in the expansion of Israeli colonies to 750,000 units (ARIJ, 2016). The Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) are also subdivided into areas, some annexed to Israel, some under Israeli civil and military control (area C, 61.1% of the OPT) and some under Israeli military control only (area B, 18.3%), with a small area under Palestinian civil and partial security control (area A, 17.7%) (Isaac and Hilal, 2011; ARIJ, 2016). Israeli colonies were planned for security and ideological reasons, and so were built on hilltops dotting the Palestinian landscape in order to fit into a pattern enabling control of the natural resources and of the native Palestinian population (Benvenisti, 2002; Weizman, 2012). The construction by Israel of an illegal 760 km of apartheid/segregation barrier that has already uprooted 1.5 million trees is continuing. Other infrastructures include over 1,500 kilometers of settler roads, mostly separated from existing (and severely dilapidated) Palestinian road systems.
Pollution: Israelis dump solid and liquid waste without restriction on Palestinian land, fields, and side roads. The solid waste generated in West Jerusalem, for example, is transferred to an insanitary dumping site east of Abu Dis. The Government of Israel has constructed 17 industrial zones in the West Bank. They are located mainly on hilltops, from which they dump industrial wastewater onto adjacent Palestinian lands. No information about industries in the Israeli industrial zones is accessible to the Palestinians. Gishuri Industries, a manufacturer of pesticides and fertilizers which faced significant court setbacks in its original plant in Kfar Saba, was moved to an area adjacent to Tulkarm inside the West Bank in 1987. Significant pollution from this and other companies in this area has damaged citrus and vineyards (ARIJ, 2016). The first research on genotoxicity in the OPT identified the significant impact of the Barqan Industrial settlement on Palestinians of Burqeen village (Hammad and Qumsiyeh, 2013). Further issues arise from the fact that Israel sends its trash including electronic trash across the Green Line resulting in significant health effect to native Palestinians (Khlaif and Qumsiyeh 2017).
Weapons: There is accumulating evidence that Israel’s use of ordnance such as white phosphorous in the occupied Palestinian territories is harmful to human health and the environment (Human Rights Watch and Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2009).
Demographics: Before the Zionist project began in the late 19th century, Palestine had some 1,300 villages and towns, each with small and manageable populations. The total population at that time was 850,000, distributed among various religious persuasions (3% Jewish, 13% Christian, 80% Muslim, 4% other). The land was owned and/or used by those local people. Following the first Zionist congress in 1897, this structure was radically altered, with mostly European Jews immigrating and taking over the land, culminating in two episodes of ethnic cleansing and consolidation: 1) 1948-1966, when over 500 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed (Pappe, 2006) and their land re-cultivated mostly through the planting of European pine trees that damaged the local environment, and 2) 1967 until today, with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and much reshaping of landscape in the areas now referred to as ‘Occupied Palestinian Territories’ (Masalha, 1992; Qumsiyeh, 2004). Over six million native Palestinians have access to about 8.2% of the land (personal calculations) in the Galilee, the Triangle, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Negev, and Gaza. Some six million Israeli Jews (mostly new immigrants since the foundation of Israel in 1948) have access to the remaining 91.8% of historic Palestine. The development of the state of Israel and its occupation of the 1967 areas emphasized military, territorial and demographic security, but not environmental security (Tal, 2002; Newman, 2009). In 1990, the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza stood at over 200,000 with an additional 120,000 Israelis living in illegally annexed areas of East Jerusalem. Today the settler population is over 900,000!
Water: There is uneven distribution of water between the natives and the Israeli colonizers who now control >90% of West Bank water (Gasteyer et al., 2012; Messerschmid and Selby, 2015). Settlers have closed off the flow of water from most open springs, which devastated the habitats for human and for animals such as amphibians (Salman et al. 2014) and freshwater snails (Handal et al., 2016).
Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (which Israel ratified) clearly states that ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’ (adding that life in military occupied areas must be allowed to proceed as normal as possible). UN Security Council Resolution 465 of 1980 reads in part that: ‘..all measures taken by Israel to change the physical character, demographic composition, institutional structure or status of the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967, including Jerusalem, or any part thereof, have no legal validity and [that] Israel’s policy and practices of settling parts of its population and new immigrants in those territories constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.’
The 2003 United Nations Envionment Programe (UNEP) report identified key effects of the occupation on the environment and made over 100 recommendations without prioritization or target dates, and with little focus on connecting those recommendations to the occupation.
Escobar (1998) identified key principles that shape social movements, including those that deal with environmental justice issues, and in our view they are all relevant to Palestine: (1) the reaffirmation of identity (black, Palestinian, or other); (2) the right to territory (as space for existing, or ‘being’); (3) autonomy (the right to exercise being/ identity); (4) the right to construct an autonomous perspective of the future. All of these are lacking in a situation of occupation/colonization.
This situation is not really a conflict since the word conflict implies equal or almost equal parties. It is a colonial onslaught on natives who have little by way of self-defense abilities. It originally derived from international sources and for most of its history was internationalized (e.g., Balfour Declaration, British Mandate, League of Nations, and UN resolutions). It must therefore be brought to a resolution through an international effort that returns dignity and sovereignty to the local people. In this context, environmental justice is also key to peacemaking (Alleson and Schoenfeld, 2007). In view of the rampant environmental injustice in Palestine which harms civilian populations, it is crucial to afford protection based on international laws, since the local laws are those of an apartheid colonial-settler state (see for example Al-Haq, 2015, Adalah.org). There is recent interest in issues of combining international law applications to help in environmental justice issues especially relating to developing countries (see Anand, 2017). Palestine provides the ultimate test case for the value of international instruments in environmental justice (Alleson & Schoenfeld, 2007).
There are significant positive movements for environmental justice and sustainable living even in these difficult circumstances. For example people can build from the grassroots institutions that enhance and promote sustainable natural and human communities even in difficult circumstances of occupation and colonization (Qumsiyeh 2017; Qumsiyeh et al. 2017). Using cultural heritage can also help to address some of the challenges native people have (Qumsiyeh 2018). Such processes actually can form integral parts of decolonizing activities (Tuck et al. 2014).
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh is founder and director of the Palestine Museum of Natural History and Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability at Bethlehem University in occupied Palestine (http://palestinenature.org). He is author of “Sharing the Land of Canaan” and “Popular Resistance in Palestine” (see http://qumsiyeh.org).
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