Environmental degradation exacerbated by Israel-Palestine politics
One can be forgiven for not paying too much attention to the state of the environment in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza. There always seems to be more pressing issues to address. However, an immediate and worrying sight for anyone entering the Occupied Territories is the piles of rusting cars and other dumped waste that illustrates the lack of capacity to address environmental issues, which in the current state of affairs are being inevitably pushed lower and lower down the list of priorities.
In the context of the daily realities of living in the impossible mix of Israeli occupation and blockade, semi-functioning with different degrees of authoritarian self-rule by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, most Palestinians face severe hardships and have very limited access to basic necessities. Addressing environmental issues has become a luxury they can ill afford, but equally they can ill afford not to without damaging the fragile ecology of the environment they live in. After all, both issues are closely related and addressing the current state of the environment, including threats to its biodiversity, water, land and soil degradation, the depletion of its natural resources and problems of urbanization and waste management, can be neglected only at one’s peril. With or without a peaceful resolution to the long running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the environmental realities are biting hard and will only worsen unless a fresh political capacity and resolve to rise to the challenges is found.
All the evidence tells us that the Middle East and North Africa region is among those places in the world that are most vulnerable to climate change and global warming is already taking a devastating toll on the region’s water supplies and food production systems. This has, in turn, been linked to political instability and breeding grounds for terrorism and violent extremism and threatens to produce increasing numbers of climate refugees.
In the Occupied Territories, climate change will likely become a multiplier of the existing extremely volatile social and political conditions. Climatic conditions are mostly hot and arid and Palestine suffers from chronic water scarcity, which has been aggravated by rising temperatures, especially over the past half-century. It is forecast that, as a result of further warming, precipitation will fall, accompanied by unpredictable rainfall patterns, heat waves, floods, cyclones and sandstorms, all of which will result in even greater aridity. This is not something that other places do not experience, but the unique political and socioeconomic conditions experienced by the Palestinians are serving to hamper, if not paralyze, strategic thinking and any concrete policies to tackle these environmental hazards.
Realities are biting hard and will only worsen unless a fresh political capacity and resolve to rise to the challenges is found.
A report last year by the UN Environment Programme into the state of the environment in the Occupied Territories painted a dreary picture of its impact on public health and the ecological sustainability of both the West Bank and Gaza. Water is polluted by waste from both Palestinian towns and Israel’s illegal settlements. Every environmental indicator related to Palestinian lands suggests unsustainable pressure on their resources.
To begin with, the rate of population growth is 2.7 percent and the current population of nearly 5 million is expected to increase to 7 million by 2030. Inevitably, the population density of these very small territories is pushing up the value of land and seeing it sold for urbanization, as agricultural land consequently disappears. A major contributor to this worrying development is the constant expansion of settlements in terms of land and population. These settlements use resources disproportionate to their size, adding to the existing ecological pressures. Israel’s actions in the name of protecting these settlements are only causing further environmental degradation. These actions include the uprooting of large numbers of trees to clear the way for military bases and construction work on the separation barrier or new bypass roads.
There is a legacy of inequitable water sharing between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank that goes back to the Oslo Accords of 1993 and has been perpetuated by the absence of peace to become another tool for tightening the pressure on the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. According to a report by the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, the Gaza Strip’s water and sewage systems are being badly hit by Israel preventing the supply of spare parts to maintain desalination plants and sewage treatment facilities. Consequently, water leakage from pipes has worsened, rainwater cannot be drained and so poses a flooding risk, while the quality and quantity of drinking water is deteriorating and raw sewage flowing into the sea presents obvious environmental and health hazards. A huge source of concern has emerged from the contamination of the aquifer that Gaza relies on, while water in the West Bank is also under severe strain as half of all wells owned by Palestinians have dried up over the last two decades.
Though it is not the only area in which Israel is scoring own goals when it comes to the Palestinians, on environmental issues its mistakes are spectacular because Israelis and Palestinians live in such close proximity and share the same shoreline and air. Hence, it is in its vital national interest that Israel must work in close cooperation with the Palestinian administrations in both the West Bank and Gaza to improve environmental conditions. It might be wishful thinking, but the indisputable scientific evidence is that only such cooperation, putting aside other considerations and without neglecting profound disagreements on other issues, will lead Israelis and Palestinians to successfully contain the environmental threats they face, including those that derive from the nature of the relations between them.
Joint developmental planning and environmental governance is urgently needed for the sake of fending off existential environmental dangers, but also in order to change the discourse between all the political actors. The impacts of climate change and global warming cannot be put on hold indefinitely and the absence of conducive political conditions is proving to be severely detrimental to the state of the environment in the West Bank and Gaza.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg