[This article is part of a roundtable that is a product of a public forum that Academics for Justice in Palestine (AJP) at UCSB held on 8 December 2023. To see all other entries in this roundtable, click here.]
My name is David Naguib Pellow and I am a proud member of Academics for Justice in Palestine. I’m not an expert on Palestine-Israel. I am an environmental justice scholar, so I will use this opportunity to offer an environmental justice framing of this struggle.
Environmental injustice is the term we use to describe the fact that politically, economically and socially marginalized peoples tend to also face disproportionate environmental and climate threats from institutions like governments and corporations. Indigenous Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte powerfully connects this idea to settler colonialism, which he defines as the occupation and control of land, water, aerial space and people by an invading population. Therefore, settler colonialism is an example of environmental injustice and racism because it undermines the ecological conditions required for Indigenous peoples to exercise their cultures, economies, and political self-determination. Therefore, just as the founding of the U.S. was an example of environmental injustice and environmental racism, so too was the founding of the state of Israel and the ongoing Nakba.
Can we talk about Palestine and water? Following Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza after the war in 1967, that state took complete control of Palestinians’ water resources and infrastructure. Issa Nijoum, a former citrus farmer from Al-Auja [ujah] recalled “..when they [the Israeli authorities] started taking the water it was like a sickness in a body… slowly the land dried up” (Movement Generation).
Even available sources of water are not always clean. Far from it. In fact, fully 97% of the water that Palestinians in Gaza have been consuming for decades is unfit for human consumption, by WHO standards (Ibrahim).Israel also directly targets water infrastructure for destruction. Water wells and wastewater infrastructure, rainwater cisterns, irrigation systems, and water networks have been destroyed repeatedly by Israeli military forces, in a blatant violation of Protocol I of the Geneva Convention (Dajani).According to the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON), Israeli settlers use Palestinian land as a dumping ground for 90% of Israel’s waste water (Movement Generation). And the longstanding Israeli blockade of Gaza severely limits the entry of materials needed to develop and repair water and sanitation infrastructure, which has led to the inability to maintain the sewage treatment plant, resulting in further water contamination and sickness.
Israel enacted Military Order 158 four months into the occupation and it banned Palestinians from constructing any new water installations without a permit from the Israeli army (Moussa). Today, in the occupied West Bank, Israel controls 80% of water reserves and those permits needed to construct new water installations are nearly impossible to obtain. This all amounts to what some Palestinians call a “water occupation”—the colonization of native water (Moussa).
Particularly disturbing is the ban on both the collection of rainwater and the possession of rainwater harvesting cisterns. Israeli authorities deem rainwater “a state property”, an extraordinary policy that reflects Kyle Powys Whyte’s definition of settler colonialism, which includes colonizers controlling not only land and water, but also aerial space. The result is totally predictable: about one-quarter of diseases spread in Gaza are caused by water pollution, about 50 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from water-related infections, and 12 percent of the deaths of young children are linked to intestinal infections related to contaminated water (Ibrahim).
Waste and Pollution
Can we talk about Palestine, waste and pollution? The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 opened up opportunities for environmentally destructive Israeli industries, and many of the most highly polluting companies moved to the West Bank and were provided with tax incentives to do so (United Nations). They were literally paid to poison Palestinians. Israel has been dumping waste, including hazardous and toxic waste, in the West Bank for years. The Palestinian Environmental Authority once uncovered 500 barrels of insecticide dumped in Hebron in the southern West Bank (Frykberg). Israel’s illegal settlements regularly dump garbage and discharge wastewater into West Bank rivers and streams, which includes pesticides, asbestos, and electronic waste, which contain carcinogenic and hazardous compounds.
Land and Forests
Can we talk about Palestine, land and trees? At the dawn of the state of Israel’s birth in May 1948, native trees (such as oaks, carobs, and hawthorns) and agricultural crops (olives, figs, and almonds) were systematically uprooted and replaced with European pine trees (Masalha). These planted pines reduced biodiversity and harmed the local environment because pines shed needles that are acidic and prevent the growth of underbrush plants and these trees are also highly susceptible to fire because of their resins (Qumsiyeh and Abusarhan). Meanwhile, since 1967, some 800,000 olive trees have been uprooted by the Israeli state, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Palestinian families (Chelala).
The Jewish National Fund is an organization established in 1901 to develop land for Jewish settlement in what was then Ottoman Palestine, and to this day the Fund refuses to sell land to non-Jews. It is now the region’s largest private landholder and is best known for its campaigns to rehabilitate “degraded” forests and plant new ones. At least 46 Jewish National Fund forests are located on the ruins of former Palestinian villages that were depopulated during the founding of Israel (Masalha). Many of these forests are also located on sites where mosques once stood (Davis). Over 180 Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948 are now Israeli recreational sites or national parks where the state celebrates its alleged commitment to “environmentalism” while concealing the fact of the Nakba. This is an example of what some scholars call “coercive conservation” or “settler environmentalism” in which Indigenous peoples are expelled to make way for settlers who can enjoy nature without having to think about the inconvenient truth of the violence that made that experience possible. That’s also the story behind the national parks in this country.
Resistance and Hope
Can we talk about Palestine, resistance and hope? Every poet, author, musician, dancer and artist throughout the Palestinian Diaspora is producing texts, words, music, imagery, and movement that are the heartbeat of this beautiful revolution.
In the West Bank and Gaza, the Union of Agricultural Works Committee is a Palestinian small-scale farmer movement that represents more than 20,000 people doing important work with seed banking and reclaiming thousands of hectares of land to empower Palestinian farmers.
Organizations like the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (PIBS) work to reconnect Palestinian youth with the land, building food sovereignty, water reclamation projects, sustainable architecture, and aquaponics to create resilience in the face of climate change.
And speaking of climate change, considering that the overwhelming majority of energy used by the state of Israel comes from fossil fuels (Kaminer, Fahoum, and Konrad); considering that barely a third of the Israeli population views climate change as a serious concern (Haaretz); and considering that war and militarization are the single most ecologically destructive activities that humans can engage in, Palestinian resistance against the occupation is a critical component of the global movement for environmental and climate justice.
I close with the words of anti-Zionist Jewish scholar-activist, Uri Davis, who writes:
“It is possible to bulldoze a Palestinian village to the ground and cover the ruins with a J[ewish] N[ational] F[und] forest. It is not possible to eradicate the native Palestinian village cactus, the sabr [subrah]…Tear the sabr down, and it will always re-emerge” (Davis).
So you and I, we all must become the sabr today, tomorrow and for future generations. They may tear us down, but we will always re-emerge to peacefully and lovingly move forward our joint struggle toward collective liberation for all, which most definitely must include Palestinians and Israelis—who will only know freedom and security when this bloody occupation is finally brought to an end. So I say with love in my heart, Free Palestine, Free Palestine, Free Palestine!