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  • Writer's pictureMia Dancey

Environmental Justice in Palestine

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Palestine

Two weeks ago, I had the exceptional honour of attending a roundtable discussion on the impact of the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian environment. The panel was held in honour of the 37th issue of the Africana Studia journal published by the University of Porto, which was the journal's first issue to feature articles solely related to Palestine. The editors of the magazine and Dr Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestinian ambassador to Portugal, participated in the roundtable discussion. The conversation shed a harsh light on the realities of the Israeli occupation in Palestine and the need for Palestinian climate justice.

The roundtable discussion opened with a speech from the ambassador himself. Dr. Abuznaid sketched out the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – for those few unfamiliar with this bastion of colonial and apartheid occupation – and touched on the difficulty of his position as ambassador in Portugal. His speech painted the picture of a people whose national identity is supported in many regions of the world but who are left without allies because no international body would dare recognise Palestine, lest they unleash American-Israeli wrath. Dr. Abuznaid spoke passionately about his people's struggle and his efforts to gain international support. He lamented that the UN has passed over 45 resolutions condemning Israel's actions in Palestine, but little has been done to hold Israel accountable for its oppression against Palestinians. He concluded by urging the audience to support the BDS movement – an effort to boycott, disinvestment, and sanction Israel, similar to the international anti-apartheid movements during the 1980s.

Following Dr. Abuznaid, the professors and research each spoke about their articles. Professor Ahmad Abu Hammad opened with a summary of his research into the immediate effects of Israel's occupation on the Palestinian environment. Professor Hammad reported on Israeli quarries, which pollute the air and water with dust and slurry, while Israeli monocultures are changing the natural fauna in Palestine's northern areas due to increased pesticide and fertiliser use. He also described how the occupation of Palestine has led to environmental injustices, with Palestinians being prevented from engaging in government-level environmental best practices despite the most polluting industrial complexes being located there. Next, Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Bethlehem University elaborated further on how the Israeli industrial complex destroys local fauna and flora. He touched on the ailing Jordan River, which is slowly emptying due to climate change and the excessive demands of local industry. Professor Qumsiyeh concluded by speaking of Palestinians' limited abilities to care for their own landscape. Though there are protected natural areas in Palestine, Palestinians have restricted power in the administration of these areas, and Israel routinely violates their protections.

The third speaker was Professor Mustapha El Hannani, of l'Universite d'Angers. Professor El Hannani's work presentation painted a detailed portrait of Palestine's colonial experience as present in its environment's materiality. He described the act of colonisation, and its basis in environmental alterations, by comparing the Israeli occupation in Palestine to the French occupation in Algeria. Both colonial regimes drew upon a narrative of 'returning to a homeland' or, in French, "On est de retour", which gave the colonial act a sense of historical pre-determination. This pre-determination was immediately etched into the colonised environment as the colonisers shaped the environment for their purposes. To exemplify this, Professor El Hannani spoke about the city as a site of colonial environmental contestation; colonial cities are often divided into one area for the colonisers and one for the colonised, with a no-man's land bridging these two areas. This very layout is typified in Palestinian cities today. Professor El Hannani concluded that the colonial project is an ever continuing one and that the effects of this project can be seen at all levels in the Palestinian landscape.

The final speaker before the roundtable discussion was María Fernanda Cáceres Sánchez, whose work focused on Israel's exploitation of natural resources in the West Bank's Area C. Though Area C is under Israeli administrative control, Palestinians are meant to have some dominion over the administration of the local water resources. However, in reality, Palestinians have limited access to rivers, riverbanks, and aquifers. Israeli officials are also quick to seize and destroy any Palestinian agricultural products attempting to enter or exit the area. Ms Sánchez linked these examples of Israel's territorial control in Area C to the issue of occupation versus annexation in international law. Ms Sánchez concluded that Israel's actions in Area C denote a system of annexation prohibited under international law.

The academics and researchers who presented their papers in this discussion outlined a very bleak and challenging colonial and territorial control situation in Palestine. However, in the roundtable discussion, they passionately outlined ways in which Palestinian allies could attempt to address the problem. They stressed the importance of environmental justice – particularly the 'justice' element of that concept. Professor Qumsiyeh spoke of the inalienable prerogative of Palestinian sovereignty in the fight for the environment. He argued that the Palestinian landscape could not be adequately protected and cultivated unless done so by its rightful custodians. He also warned against greenwashing activities that attempted to show equal partnerships between Palestinians and Israelis for the environment's sake. These often conceal unequal relations and attempts to greenwash Israel's apartheid in Palestine. Ambassador Abuznaid supported the professor and added that environmental work in Palestine had to begin with Palestinian justice. Palestinians need control over their own borders and territory in order to take meaningful action to protect their landscape.

The ambassador finished the discussion on a note which has stuck with me in the two weeks since the roundtable. Dr. Abuznaid spoke about the importance of the Israeli youth in the fight for environmental justice. He said that his greatest respect was owed not to European and international onlookers who sympathised with the Palestinian plight but to the Israeli youths who refused the IDF's draft and "cause trouble at the checkpoints". These youths are the ones who have the most power to change the situation in Palestine; they are literally in the trenches, fighting for Palestinian liberation. He said that if he could speak directly to these young people, who are routinely asked to lay down their lives for an apartheid government, he would implore them to see the Palestinian humanity that is erased from the Israeli narrative.

This notion has struck a chord within me; we are routinely shown that the youth are the forerunners of contemporary environmental struggles. After all, they will be the ones most affected by the on-coming climate crisis. So how can young Israelis and Palestinians work toward a shared notion of environmental justice? How can these disparate groups view the common ground? Change needs to begin with the Palestinian struggle. Yet, this roundtable discussion has left me with some hope that there are those fighting bravely for the environmental justice that Palestine so desperately deserves.

Mia Dancey is a junior consultant at Waterworth Consulting. She is passionate about matters of the Global South — particularly development initiatives in Southern Africa and South-South relations. Her heritage, as a South African and a European with Jewish ancestry, informs much of her work, including this week's blog post; her reflection on a recent roundtable discussion she attended. Topic, word choice and opinions are of the author.

Note from Melody, Managing Director of Waterworth Consulting

I know that any discussion on the nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict is highly politicised and securitised. It allows little room for a real discussion about shared issues. The environment is just one example of an issue which requires true cooperation to resolve. I hope that this week's blog article post can emphasise the need for young people to stand up for justice and inequality wherever they see it. To use our differences to our benefit, unite against a shared enemy of injustice or climate degradation and not see our differences as reasons to turn against one another. I have personally witnessed Israelis and Palestinians coming together in their shared pain to enact change. It was an incredible phenomenon to witness and one that gives me hope that when individuals come together to mobilise against oppression, we can enact real change in a non-violent manner.

While I remain as neutral as I can be, noting the importance of open communication in conflict. The disproportionate nature of this conflict must be addressed, and the actions of the Israeli government condemned.

We encourage our staff and clients to engage in difficult conversations and controversial topics to learn from one another and stimulate open, meaningful dialogue to break down complex issues and understand differing opinions.

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