By Abeer Abu Aisha
At the end of August, Friends of the Earth Scotland vice-chair Eurig Scandrett joined Bobby Peek from Friends of the Earth South Africa (groundWork) as part of a three-day international delegation to the West Bank. At the invitation of Friends of the Earth Palestine (PENGON), they were asked to witness and report on environmental violations in the West Bank caused by the Israeli Occupation.

During this short visit, Bobby and Eurig met with local mayors, administrators, and community members in the West Bank and witnessed significant environmental problems: untreated Israeli sewage and industrial waste contaminating Palestinian land, pollution from Israeli factories damaging Palestinian lungs, and Palestinians denied water so that Israeli settlers can live profligately on Palestinian land. These problems are significant but they are not unique. Throughout the world, land and other resources are stolen and exploited, waste is dumped illegally, and communities are forced to fight industrial pollution. What is distinctive here is that these problems all have a single cause, the Israeli Occupation.

Eurig Scandrett said, “The theft of resources and the pollution of land and water are designed to serve only the interests of the apartheid state of Israel. This is nothing short of an environmental nakba. The occupation of Palestinian lands through military might is the political framework that results in an unequal relationship between the peoples of Israel and Palestine. As long as this continues, the Palestinian people will be facing environmental injustices resulting in both the destruction of their health and well-being and their environment. This is an abnormal society.”

Bobby Peek confirmed, “We need to take seriously the concerns of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu when he pronounced on the apartheid nature of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine land. The occupying of Palestinian lands is a challenge Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) deals with globally in the form of poor people losing their land through undemocratic land grabs by multinational corporations and governments. FoEI rejects attempts to normalise the situation and supports the Palestinian people in their mobilisation and resistance to the Occupation.”

In the agricultural village of Kafr Dik in the region of Salfit, 80 percent of the land and two ground wells have been confiscated for three settlements and an industrial zone. More than 10,000 people receive 280,000 litres of water per day, drawn from land close to the Israeli settlement, which must be rationed and supplemented with tankers. The Salfit region is strategically important, as Israel is seeking to expropriate a band of land from the Ariel settlement to the Jordan valley, splitting the West Bank into two discontinuous parts and making a viable Palestinian state impossible.

The expropriation of water is also a major source of conflict in Om Elkheir, a village built by Bedouin on land bought in the South Hebron hills in the West Bank after they were forced from their land in the Negev. There are now Israeli settlements and poultry farms surrounding their village. The settlements and farms use 89 percent of the water in this area while the Palestinian Water Authority is prevented by the Israeli military from developing water access for the village.

Why focus on the Israeli Occupation? The West Bank comprises 21 percent of historical Palestine (most of the rest of historical Palestine is now Israel) and has been under military occupation since the invasion of 1967, as was the Gaza strip until it was annexed by the elected Hamas government in 2007. The Occupation has made it possible to develop over 120 illegal settlements, which are residential, agricultural, and industrial, and the Separation Wall, 85 percent of which is within the West Bank.

The Oslo Accords of 1993 divided the land in the West Bank into three zones, giving the Palestinian Authority full control over 2.7 percent, within limits set by Israel, and partial control over 25 percent. Since 2002, a further 8.5 percent of the West Bank has been confiscated (including the most fertile land and the water access points) in order to build the Separation Wall, which reinforces apartheid-like conditions between Israel and Palestine. Essentially, nothing happens within the West Bank without Israeli permission, which means that nothing happens unless it is in the interest of Israel and the Israeli settlements.

Right to water
The Israeli Occupation has long been recognised as the root cause of the violations of Palestinians’ civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Many of these violations, as well as Israel’s illegal Occupation, have been condemned by the United Nations.

The human right to water is a recognised component of international human rights law.

In November 2002, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights released General Comment Number 15, in which it reaffirmed that “the human right to water entitles everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” In addition, the right to water is a fundamental component of the right to health (Article 12 of the Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights) and the right to life as set forth in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (General Comment Number Six of Human Rights Commission Paragraph Five).

The right to water is also protected in international humanitarian and customary water law. Israel, through a range of policies and practices, violates all the substantive aspects of the right to water as recognised in international law, particularly accessibility, availability, and quality, as set forth in General Comment Number 15.

Waste is another political tool used by the Israeli occupiers. The Ariel settlement dumps liquid waste, both sewage and industrial, into Palestinian waterways and onto agricultural land, making the contaminated and unworkable land easier to confiscate.

What is important to mention is that Israel has been dumping more than 50 percent of its nuclear and chemical waste (at an estimated weight of three million tons, according to a 2008 report from the Applied Research Institute and the Land Resource Centre) in Palestinian lands, especially in the southern parts of the West Bank. This waste is causing Palestinians to die a slow death by spreading dangerous diseases. The waste, which is banned internationally, is also causing great damage to the environment because it emits poisonous gases.

Military zone
Wadi Qana is a beautiful green valley with a series of springs, which has been recognised as an ecologically valuable area by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The valley has been maintained for generations by local Palestinians, who use it for grazing their livestock, growing olives, and recreation. Israel declared the valley a military zone in 1979 and attempted to exclude Palestinians from it. Following protests, the military designation was withdrawn in 1982, and the Israeli occupying authorities declared Wadi Qana a “nature reserve,” which led to the exclusion of Palestinians! Between 1979 and 1982, nine settlements were built around the top of the valley, which pumped raw sewage into the wadi until a pipe was installed in 2005.

In Tulkarem, in northern West Bank, there is an industrial estate with 11 chemical factories built on confiscated Palestinian land behind the Separation Wall. In this “Seam Zone” between the Green Line and the Separation Wall, there are no controls and no Palestinian authority can implement restrictions. The Israeli military controls who enters and leaves the factory, which guarantees low wages and poor health, safety, and environmental conditions. The industrial site was first established in 1984 when the Gishuri Plastics Recycling Plant relocated from within Israel, where it was subject to legal action for pollution. Within the Seam Zone, it can pollute with immunity and has attracted other factories to the site.

An environmental nakba
In all these cases, what we have seen is environmental injustice perpetrated by Israel through the Occupation. It is clear that the theft of resources and the pollution of land and water are creating an environmental nakba.

Nakba is the Arabic word for catastrophe. To call the industrial pollution, unregulated waste dumping, and expropriation of resources by the Israeli Occupation a catastrophe is certainly a legitimate claim. However the Nakba has a particular significance in Palestine. It refers to the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people from 1947 to 1949 when 80 percent of the population was brutally expelled by Zionist militias from historical Palestine. The expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rapes, destruction of villages, and the attempted erasure of a people who had lived there for generations. It created 1.5 million refugees who are still unable to return home. It is in this context that it is possible to talk about an environmental nakba. Israel seems to be using environmental violations to make the land uninhabitable for Palestinians and to try to drive them from their land as the settlements expand.

Since its early days, the Zionist project has been oriented towards the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population to be replaced with an ethnically pure “Jewish state.” Environmental injustices are one more weapon being used in this colonial project.

Abeer Abu Aisha holds a master’s degree in water and environmental engineering from the Institute of Water Studies at Birzeit University. She has worked as the network coordinator for PENGON since 2008.