1. 29. 2022

Palestinian Liberation as Climate Justice

Rawan Nabil

“We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this earth, the Lady of Earth,
mother of all beginnings and ends. She was called Palestine. Her name later became
Palestine. My Lady, because you are my Lady, I deserve life.”

Mahmoud Darwish, “On This Earth” (trans. Munir Akash & Carolyn Forché)


Land is an essential part of the Palestinian national liberation struggle. As Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish writes, our land makes our lives worth living. For that reason, in refuge and diaspora, we struggle to protect it – not only because our people’s livelihoods depend on its resources, but also because our land represents our dignity and is deeply connected to our identity, culture, and knowledge systems.  

Seventy-four years of ongoing Israeli military occupation and settler colonialism have devastatingly damaged Palestinian land and the environment. Israeli settlements dump sewage and wastewater into Palestinian valleys, while Palestinian villages, farms, and individual homes have been razed to make way for Israeli national parks. This environmental racism leaves Palestinians vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods, droughts, and landslides, made more frequent and destructive by climate change. By limiting our ability to build infrastructure like reservoirs, Israeli policy makes Palestinians less able to adapt to climate disasters.

The struggle for Palestinian national liberation is thus a climate justice issue, and an Indigenous people’s fight for sovereignty.  And as Indigenous scholars on Turtle Island have taught us, reclaiming land is essential to the liberation of Indigenous peoples all around the world.


Climate apartheid 

“Even though climate change is indiscriminate in the way it treats territory, the human effects of policy mean that Israelis and Palestinians will experience the effects of climate change in hugely disproportionate ways,” says Zena Agha, policy analyst at the independent, transnational Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. I use the term “climate apartheid” in this article to recognize how the deliberate and violent segregation of Palestinian and Israeli societies includes Israel’s suppression of Palestinians’ efforts to prepare for climate change. Climate injustice in Palestine is not a result of apartheid alone, however, but also of settler colonialism, whose violence against Palestinians is perpetuated by both the state and the settlers who uphold it. Palestinian dispossession does not end when apartheid does, but only with the complete decolonization of Palestinian land and the right of return for all Palestinians. 

Israeli climate apartheid takes many forms. Restricting access to water is an important one. During the construction of the apartheid wall that segregates the West Bank from Israel, 36,000 metres of irrigation infrastructure was demolished and more than 100,000 trees were uprooted between 2002 and 2004 alone – all while Israel made sure that a significant amount of the most fertile agricultural land lay on its side of the wall. In an article in the ecosocialist magazine Green Left, the Palestinian playwright and scholar Samah Sabawi writes: “Fifty-eight different water sources have been isolated by the wall, robbing Palestinian communities and farmers of 67.3 million cubic metres of water each year” – enough to fill over 26,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. 

The Struggle for Self Determination in the Face of Climate Change, a documentary produced by the independent Palestinian human rights organizaton Al-Haq, chronicles the experiences of farmers trying to adapt to climate change while under Israeli occupation. A farmer in the West Bank village of Susiya explains that “in Susiya, specifically, and Area C, generally, you need a license issued by Israel to dig a new water well. You are not allowed to dig a well otherwise.” The documentary reports that the majority of Palestine’s natural resources are located in Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the occupied West Bank and is under Israeli control. Without Israel’s permission, no planning or construction can happen in the area. “We cannot access 80 percent of Susiya’s lands, many of which are pastoral and agricultural,” says Azzam Nawaj’a, another farmer in that village. Lack of access to agricultural lands has led Palestinian farmers to abandon their traditional farming practices and forced them to find alternative forms of employment. Their independence is thus undermined, eroding their capacity to resist Israeli settler colonialism and climate apartheid.


Floodwaters and undrinkable water in Gaza

“Gaza always has a more difficult situation than the rest of Palestine,” Asmaa Tayeh tells me. Tayeh is a Palestinian woman living in Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, an open-air prison under Israeli siege. Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for over 15 years (since 2007). The blockade means that the Israeli settler state controls Palestinians in Gaza in many capacities: individuals’ movements, imports, infrastructure development, and more. Israel also frequently bombs Gaza, as it did during the uprisings across Palestine in the spring and summer of 2021 – even during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims worldwide.  

Tayeh explains to me that in Gaza, “heavy rainfall sometimes lasts for two to three days and people post on Facebook to tell others to prepare for it. […] Some people’s houses become flooded and the sewage overflows and there is a constant state of stress.” Eman Alshawa, another Palestinian woman living in Gaza, tells me that due to heavy rainfall, “water floods out of the pavement, sometimes reaching 20 to 70 centimetres, and people have to use boats to get around.” In We Are Not Numbers, a publication based partly in Gaza, Alshawa notes that during the winter storm called “Alexa” in December 2003, “hundreds of homes were flooded, pushing thousands of inhabitants out into the freezing cold.” Poor infrastructure in Gaza, such as narrow and uneven streets, caused rainwater to mix with sand, blocking the drains and raising the water level above building entrances. It wasn’t just one heavy rainstorm: Alshawa explains that this is “a scenario that now repeats itself every winter.”

Both Tayeh and Alshawa tell me that Palestinian winters are getting colder, and Gazans lack the means to deal with it. Israel supplies electricity to Gaza for only a few hours a day, making electric heating highly unreliable. “Israel is going to cut off the electricity, so the heater cuts off and then you have to resort to gas, and as a result, there’s less gas to use,” Tayeh notes. Palestinians are forced to ration their meagre gas supplies, often choosing between heating their homes and cooking their food.  

In Gaza as in the occupied West Bank, water is a persistent issue. Gaza suffers not only from floods, but also from a lack of wastewater treatment. As of 2019, 97 percent of the freshwater in Gaza was unsuitable for humans to drink, either too saline or contaminated by waste. As of 2011, 26 percent of all childhood diseases in Gaza were water-borne, and these diseases were the leading cause of child deaths. In 2009, 12 percent of infant and child deaths were due to diarrhoea

Combined with a meagre and uneven supply of electricity, Israel’s restrictions on the import of materials like water pumps make wastewater treatment extremely difficult. The lack of reliable electricity has also limited the local government’s ability to clean up raw sewage. The resulting threat of waterborne diseases like cholera has forced beaches to close.

Israel’s restrictions on food imports, alongside the limits it places on sea access and offshore fishing rights, also cause significant problems. Tayeh tells me that groceries have been scarce, especially during the pandemic. Fishermen and farmers often can’t work due to COVID-19 restrictions. “When the occupation attacks Gaza, the northern part is usually the most impacted…[it’s] farmland, and the soil gets contaminated,” Tayeh says. “The north of Gaza provides us with the most grocery supplies, and because of the occupation, the supply becomes less and, as a result, more expensive.” 

When, defying all these obstacles, Gazans try to build alternative infrastructure to mitigate the local effects of climate change, they are met with violence from the Israeli settler state. For instance, “Palestinians in Gaza are forbidden from importing the materials to build desalination plants,” Zena Agha reports. Meanwhile, “the PA [Palestinian Authority] in the West Bank is hindered by project-approval hurdles…and well-drilling restrictions.”  

Palestinian environmental activist and scholar Dr. Muna Dajani tells me that while Israel withholds technologies from Palestinians, it simultaneously uses Gaza and the West Bank to conduct research into its own climate technologies. “Not only does Israel test illegal weapons on Palestinians, but also technologies that they deem as ‘green,’ to uphold an environmentally friendly image,” Dr. Dajani says. For instance, since 2014 the Israeli government has built solar power fields in West Bank settlements, while Palestinians have been effectively forbidden to develop such energy sources, as they are “denied access to the Israeli grid and permission to build new structures,” Dr. Dajani tells me. Painting itself as a champion of environmentalism, Israel uses green technology to enforce segregation.

Gendered impacts, global ripples 

When asked about women’s roles in Palestinian society, both Tayeh and Alshawa say that the pandemic has intensified women’s role as teachers, cooks, cleaners, and caretakers of children and the home. “Most of the responsibility is on women and they don’t get a chance to take a breath of fresh air,” Tayeh tells me. “During [COVID] lockdown, of course, children had to stay home with their mothers and their mothers would take on all the household roles. This is the case when flooding occurs and damages homes, as well.” During floods, women are expected to ensure that children are safe, and also to feed and care for the family as a whole. Such social expectations can restrict women’s ability to escape from environmental disasters. “The impact on women is greater than [on] men because of all the responsibilities [women] have,” Alshawa says. “Even when a woman is employed, the household responsibilities don’t change, so things are even harder.” 

In 2015, The Natuf Organization for Environment and Community Development, as well as the Arab Youth Climate Movement – Palestine, set up environmental workshops for rural Palestinian women to talk about climate change and train themselves in methods of adapting to it. Those methods include designing and planning water wells, ensuring water and food security by monitoring resource scarcity, and planting heat- and drought-resistant crops like lemon trees and sage. Such adaptations to climate change demonstrate the resiliency of Palestinians despite the extreme violence they endure daily. Palestinian resistance to Israeli settler colonialism manifests in many ways, from rebuilding destroyed infrastructure to learning adaptation techniques that can combat future destruction. 

In all these ways and more, Palestine is a climate justice issue. Projects of seeding climate justice in Gaza, the West Bank, and historic Palestine are inextricable from the broader call for Palestinian national liberation. Without collective right of return and sovereignty over natural resources, Palestinians will become only more vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters, unable to make the necessary adaptations (building solar power infrastructure, water wells) or to secure energy from neighbouring countries. Palestine should serve as a constant reminder that climate change is exacerbated by settler-colonial projects of control and eradication, so climate organizers must centre the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples everywhere. Now more than ever, the struggle for global climate justice demands that we support Palestinian sovereignty and right of return, and the end of Israeli settler colonialism, apartheid, and occupation. 

Rawan Nabil is a Palestinian community organizer based in Tkaronto (Toronto). She organizes with the Palestinian Youth Movement and is currently doing her PhD in political science, focusing on resistance to neoliberalism in Palestine.