The radical transformation of Palestine’s environment

Israel’s occupation is largely responsible for the pollution and radical transformation of the Palestinian environment.

Palestine valley
Israel often builds or relocates its most enviromentally harmful factories to the occupied West Bank [GALLO/GETTY]

Ramallah, West Bank – Nowhere is the relationship between environmental protection and social justice displayed more clearly than between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (oPT). The Israeli government takes great care to guarantee that its citizens enjoy the benefits of a clean and comfortable environment. The opposite is true in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, over which Israel has maintained ultimate control for almost 45 years.

There, Israel has instituted an exploitative regime that disregards the needs of the local population, and ignores the occupier’s responsibility as a custodian of the environment as stipulated by the Geneva Conventions. This is particularly evident in how Israel distributes water, permits the environmentally destructive behaviour of Israeli settlers and prevents Palestinian development on the land it directly controls.

Sewage water taints Gaza’s beaches

A recent report issued by the French Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee stated, “Some 450,000 Israeli settlers on the West Bank use more water than the 2.3 million Palestinians that live there. In times of drought, in contravention of international law, the settlers get priority for water.”

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organisation, Israelis consume up to 242 litres of water per person every day. Due to restrictions imposed by Israel, Palestinians consume just 73 litres per day on average (and as little as 20 litres per day in some areas), dramatically less than the 100 litres that the World Health Organization recommends as the minimum quantity for basic consumption.

Israeli settler communities use even more water than their counterparts in Israel proper, consuming over five times than Palestinians. The contrast between the indigenous Palestinian community and the Israeli settler community is even more extreme in the Jordan Valley. According to a recently released study conducted by Ma’an Development Centre, the Israeli government provides settler farms in the Valley with large quantities of water, while only 37 per cent of Palestinians report that sufficient water is even available to them. The Ma’an report also found that Israeli water companies have been charging Palestinians 11 times more for water than residents in neighbouring Israeli settlements.

Water wars

The Israeli government also turns a blind eye towards the actions of the settlers. The UN’s Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recently revealed that Israeli settlers have forcefully seized dozens of springs, the single largest water source for irrigation and a substantial source for watering livestock for Palestinians, and have turned them into tourist attractions and swimming pools. Most of these springs are situated on private Palestinian land.

Israeli colonies are sited on hill tops and they often allow the generated wastewater to run untreated into nearby valleys and Palestinian agricultural lands.

– Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem

Israel not only exploits Palestine’s resources, it also pollutes and destroys them. According to a paper published by the Applied Research Institute – Jerusalem (ARIJ) in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, “Israeli colonies are sited on hill tops and they often allow the generated wastewater to run untreated into nearby wadis [valleys] and Palestinian agricultural lands, which results in the pollution of these lands.”

Water in effected areas has become unsuitable for drinking, and Palestinian farmers are unable to cultivate their crops. Further, a report published in the Palestine Israel Journal explains that a number of polluting factories were moved from Israel Proper into the West Bank due to carcinogenic chemical emissions and protests from the Israeli public:

“A pesticide factory in Kfar Saba [Israel] which produces dangerous pollutants has been moved to an area near Tulkarem [West Bank]… The Dixon Gas industrial factory, which was located in Netanya, inside Israel, has also been moved to the Tulkarem area. The solid waste generated by the factory is burned in open air.”

Unlike Israeli citizens, Palestinians have no effective political recourse against the presence of industries that endanger their health. Palestinians are unable to stop Israel’s destruction of their environment because the occupation denies them the sovereignty critical to maintaining a sustainable presence on the land. Sixty-two per cent of the West Bank is designated as Area C meaning that it is under direct Israeli military control.

The ARIJ study cited above states that “around 80 per cent of the solid waste generated by the [Israeli] colonists is dumped at dumping sites located within the West Bank”.

Furthermore, the Israeli Chemical and Military industries have both dumped hundreds of thousands of tons of hazardous waste in the West Bank, a clear violation of the Basel Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. The Palestinian leadership is powerless to prevent this, even though many of these dumping sites constitute severe a health and safety hazards to nearby Palestinian cities and communities.

Environment in crisis

Israel also uses its domination of Palestinian land to prevent Palestinians from building sustainable Infrastructure. A joint Palestinian-Israeli NGO recently partnered with a German aid agency to build small, reliable solar and wind generators for the impoverished Palestinian community in the Israeli-controlled South Hebron Hills (since the Israeli government refuses to recognise this community, it has failed to provide it with electricity as per its obligations under the Geneva Conventions). The Israeli government has recently issued demolition orders against the installations, arguing that they were built without permits. According to data from OCHA, Israel denies building permits to Palestinians in Area C 94 per cent of the time.

The siege of Gaza has made the environmental situation there even more dire than in the West Bank. Israeli consumption from wells surrounding Gaza, and water scarcity enforced by Israel’s blockade that has forced over-pumping within Gaza, has begun to cause the intrusion of seawater into the Coastal Aquifer on which Gazans rely.

In addition, Israel’s assault on Gaza at the end of 2008 destroyed much of Gaza’s waste management capacity, and left the tiny costal strip with huge mounts of toxic waste. The fact that Israel has prevented critical waste management infrastructure from entering Gaza since 2007 has greatly exacerbated this problem. Today, only five per cent of water available in Gaza is suitable for drinking, according to B’Tselem.

There is no point in denying it: Israel’s occupation is the significant cause of the pollution and radical transformation of the Palestinian environment.

The occupation and its policies are the antithesis of Earth Day, an occasion that was celebrated by people around the world this month. When Earth Day arrives next year, Palestinians hope to celebrate it as responsible custodians of their own country. That will only be possible if we finally put an end to Israel’s occupation.

Dr Yousef Abu Safieh is Chairman of the Environment Quality Authority of Palestine.