Israel’s occupation and colonisation of Palestine has aimed to erase everything about Palestinian life, land and culture. As Alexandra Day explains, this has also involved the imposition of a kind of climate apartheid and attempts to erase even Palestine’s nature.
In the decades since 1948, apartheid and ethnic cleansing have left deep ecological scars on the land of Palestine. We have seen a dramatic, and devastating, escalation of these phenomena in Gaza since October 7th 2023. Israeli war crimes in Gaza have already included the murder of over 11,000 Palestinian men, women and children, and the mutilation of thousands more. This ongoing genocide has brought the realities of the Zionist project into sharp focus. Not only is it predicated on the destruction of the Palestinian people, but of the environment as well.
A silent casualty of Israeli apartheid is the land itself. From the building of illegal settlements over the habitats of native species, to the dumping of toxic waste into the areas inhabited by Palestinians, the settler-colonial state’s existence is fundamentally harmful to the environment. Palestine and the surrounding region are already experiencing some of the hottest temperatures, as well as increasingly scarce rainfall. These phenomena are already affecting the lives of all people, though not equally. From a broader perspective, the issue of climate apartheid reveals the ruinous effects that imperialism, and capitalism, are having on our planet. Conversely, Palestinian climate activism and resistance offers a shining example to the rest of the world in the necessity of fighting back against such a system. Now more than ever, it is clear that to stand against climate change, we must stand with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
One of the most tired Zionist talking points is that the founding of Israel ‘made the desert bloom’, transforming an empty, barren wasteland into a bountiful and prosperous land. In more recent times, this sentiment is felt in Israeli attempts to greenwash its image. The reality could not be more different. Firstly, the Israeli military-industrial complex, which is so heavily reliant on America, is itself a major contributor to global pollution. More insidiously, the Israeli state, aided by armed settlers, has continuously sought to destroy indigenous agricultural practices among Palestinians. October is traditionally olive harvest season for many Palestinian farmers. This tradition not only sustains many livelihoods, but is symbolic of the Palestinian rootedness in the land. This is why they have been targetted by settlers, usually with the backing of the military. Between January and October 2021, settlers destroyed 20,000 trees in the West Bank, almost half of which were olive trees.
Not only is this part of a strategy to drive Palestinians from the land, but it has contributed to habitat fragmentation, desertification, land degradation, and soil erosion. The destruction of such indigenous flora has been accompanied by the ever-expanded planting of the non-native pine tree. Since 1948, the KKL-JNF (the largest private landholder in the region), has strategically planted pine forests over the remains of razed Palestinian towns and villages, to prevent residents from returning to their homes. This practice continues to the present day. Such forests are often repurposed into ‘nature reserves’, such as al-Khisas, where no mention is made of the previous location or its inhabitants.
The Israeli state seeks to rewrite the history of the land by such practices, though it comes at a terrible cost for the environment. Not unlike the issue of the Sitka spruce in Ireland, the planting of pine trees across Palestine stifles almost all life, creating an ecological dead zone. Unlike Ireland, intense heat and dry periods in the region make the pine trees highly susceptible to forest fires, which destroy all in their path. Despite its intended legitimising purpose, Israeli attempts to reshape the environment are contributing to its degradation.
Fossil Capital Profits from Palestine’s Subjugation
Furthermore, with painful predictability, the genocide in Gaza has been accompanied by intensified Israeli ventures to exploit natural fuel resources off its coast. Approximately 96.4% of Israel’s electricity production comes from fossil fuels, including natural gas extracted from stolen Palestinian land. Not only is this deeply destructive to the environment, it casts in stark relief the nature of Western support for Israeli war crimes. In the late 1990s, substantial oil fields were discovered throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories, though the majority of as-yet untapped sources lay 17-21 nautical miles off the coast of Gaza. These natural gas fields have been tentatively valued at approximately $500 billion. On 29 October, one of the most deadly days of the past month, the Israeli energy minister announced twelve new gas exploration licences to allow the British multinational oil and gas firm BP and Italian energy giant Eni, and others, to explore these fields.
There are three uniquely terrible faces to this project. Firstly, the biosphere simply cannot handle any further exploitation of its natural resources. Natural gas, or LNG, is extracted via fracking, a process which generates deadly amounts of methane, and can severely contaminate local groundwater.
Secondly, Israeli attempts to sell this resource severely undermines any possibility of Palestinian fuel autonomy, which constitutes a war crime in itself. We have seen across the past month the devastating impact that the Israeli ability to cut off fuel has had on people in Gaza. This has been particularly terrible in hospitals, where ventilators and incubators could no longer be fuelled.
Finally, the prospects of access to ally-owned gas is perhaps one of the prime motivators for the EU and USA’s ongoing complicity in the genocide of Palestinians. With longstanding supplies thrown into precarity by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it comes as no surprise that the EU has thrown its lot in behind the Israeli state. Only last year, the USA signed onto the “USA-Israel energy cooperation agreement”. This overtly outlined the importance of developing “Israeli natural resources” for the strategic interest of the United States in the region. The echoes of the US’s lies about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ as a pretence for killing over 100,000 Iraqi civilians to access oil reserves are painfully clear in Gaza today.
Even the Rain…
Access to water is one of the most devastating facets of how Israeli climate apartheid functions. Climate change has caused water to globally become more scarce, but access to it has become exponentially unequal. Palestine has some of the world’s lowest per-capita water availability. As well, Israeli water consumption is approximately four to five times higher than that of the Palestinian population. What is presently happening in Gaza is a brutal exacerbation of a decade’s long process across Palestine. Much like electricity and internet, Israel has been able to shut off access to water in Gaza.
The consequences of this have been terrible, with dozens of Palestinians already confirmed to have died of dehydration. Proper sanitisation and cleaning in hospitals has become impossible. Prior to October 7th, there was already a water crisis in Gaza, due to the Israeli siege. The local reliance on groundwater resources has gradually depleted the Coastal Aquifer, rendering the vast majority of water in the region unfit for human consumption. Even in “normal” times, less than a third of houses in Gaza were connected to any water supply. Furthermore, 26% of all reported diseases in Gaza, and 12% of all child deaths were linked to contaminated water. These statistics predate the present genocide in Gaza, and it remains to be seen how much worse they will be in the future.
In the West Bank, Palestinian families often rely on rainwater collection as a somewhat more secure supply of water for their homes. These water collection systems have been criminalised and targeted by the Israeli military and settlers, and are destroyed with impunity. Aside from rainwater collection, an estimated 65% of Palestinians rely on water tankers for their water. Not only does this often entail Palestinians being forced to buy water from Israeli companies, it is generally three to six times more costly than piped water and of unreliable quality.
The backdrop to these acute issues of access is the fact that the groundwater is increasingly contaminated by the Israeli practice of dumping sewage and chemical waste into Palestinian areas. The exploitation and redirection of groundwater from Palestinian land has also caused a drop in the water table and a distortion in the natural flow of groundwater, destabilising the earth. Israeli restriction of Palestinian water access presents us with a vision of what may become the norm in years to come. As heatwaves deplete drinkable water sources, only the rich will be able to afford or access the water essential for life.
Destruction of Animal Life
Another perverse aspect of Israeli climate apartheid is that it is not limited to the destruction of human life, but of animal life as well. It truly seems that the existence of anything that indicates life pre-1948 is a legitimate target in the eyes of the Zionist project. The building of settlements and the illegal annexation and separation wall surrounding the west bank has seen some of the most ancient indigenous flora and fauna to the region become extinct or critically endangered.
One example is the Palestinian gazelle, an animal which has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance and survival. Since the 1970s, the region has seen an estimated 25% decrease in its woodland areas. Only 2,000 known Palestinian mountain gazelle exist in the wild currently, declining dramatically from its recorded level of 10,000 in 2008. Though the gazelle’s habitat is already threatened by drought-induced decline of shrubland and woodland areas, the pro-cess has been exponentially worsened by Israeli settler colonialism. The gazelle historically make their home in the hilly areas surrounding the West Bank, which is currently witnessing the rapid expansion of Israeli settlements.
For instance, the Abu-ghnaim mountain forest was uprooted for the building of the Gilo settlement. Over 119 species have disappeared from the region since 1948 due to Israeli settlement construction, wetland clearance, and forestation projects. Their extinction reveals the depth of the Zionist commitment to eradicating indigenous life, both human and nonhuman.
In the face of so much death and destruction, it is telling that the native flora and fauna have become some of the most recognisable symbols of Palestinian resistance. The cactus, the olive tree, the gazelle, and the sea, all speak to the spirit of life which the Israeli state cannot crush. Climate activists in Palestine are fighting a war on two fronts, dealing with both ecological issues, and Israeli apartheid and mass ethnic cleansing. One inspiring example, of many, is the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (and the associated Palestine Natural History Museum). This institution not only preserves vital cultural heritage to be shared through the generations, but it is also on the coalface of research into the effects of climate apartheid. The institute has previously worked extensively on training up farmers and researchers from Gaza in aquaponics, to develop greater food sovereignty in the region. The museum also keeps land for refugees in the Bethlehem area to use as a community garden. Against the relentless Zionist drive for the destruction of people and land, these projects gain a deep significance. It reiterates the humanity of the Palestinian people, and their connection to the land.
Climate Apartheid and International Struggle
More broadly, climate apartheid highlights the interconnectedness of struggles against oppression across the globe. It demonstrates how the fight against climate change cannot be separated from the fight against imperialism, and against Israeli apartheid. Similar tactics have been used by settler-colonial projects throughout history, in Ireland, in America, in Canada, and beyond. At their core, they are predicated on the same drive to increase consumption, and expand the exploitation of natural resources year upon year.
It is increasingly apparent that such ‘infinite growth’ is a fatal impossibility. The case of Palestine demonstrates with disturbing clarity the lengths that settler-colonial projects will go to in order to expand their wealth. However, this reality demonstrates the shared struggle and potential shared power of people resisting apartheid and climate change across the globe. Climate is not secondary to Palestine, nor is Palestine secondary to climate; rather, the two are fundamentally interlinked.
The call for climate justice cannot be made without the call for Palestinian liberation.