Najib Saab. 29/10/2023

Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to help collect project proposals aimed at supporting the “environmental human rights of indigenous communities.” At first glance, I thought that the genocide against Palestinians was the motivation for this initiative, before realizing that the native people belonging to one of the oldest civilizations in history are the last to be entitled to human rights and protection.

During the week I had received, as always, dozens of reports and invitations to meetings and conferences around the world, discussing managing natural resources, preventing land, sea and air pollution, and reducing carbon emissions. But what does it mean to claim concern about the health of soil, water, and air, besides plant and animal species threatened with extinction, while passively watching, or worse encouraging, the ongoing displacement and killing of people deprived of their homeland and most basic human rights?

I recall when a journalist came from London twelve years ago, to interview me at my office in Beirut on the environment and environmental journalism. After a long conversation about the most prominent environmental challenges facing countries in the Middle East, at the forefront of which are water scarcity, drought and pollution, and the role of media in raising public awareness and triggering appropriate environmental policies, she asked me: “Since environmental problems do not recognize political borders, can cooperation in environment and climate between Arab countries and Israel contribute towards making peace?”

I answered that cooperation on environmental issues cannot occur parallel to denying people’s right to national sovereignty in their own land. Palestinians have to be the main party to cooperation, but how would this be possible between people deprived of their homeland, resources, and basic right to exist, and a state that occupied their land and seized their resources? The Palestinians had agreed to live in a sovereign state on a small fraction of their land, and signed agreements to this effect. Arab countries also presented peace initiatives that offered the integration of Israel in the region, beside peaceful and balanced cooperation, in parallel with the establishment of an independent state for the Palestinians on a small part of their historical land, of which they were the original inhabitants before Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

With Israel rejecting all of these initiatives, and denying the Palestinians’ right to exist as human beings and people in the first place, I asked my interviewer: What would be the agenda of environmental cooperation under these circumstances? Will it be on sharing crumbs of trivial resources left in a small dismembered territory under occupation dubbed a “national authority” while it is less than a municipality? A disfigured piece of land dotted with settlements occupied by people who came from all over the world, and who were given the right to reside there based only on their religious affiliation? How can those who establish their state solely on an ethnic religious basis, imposing blunt apartheid rule, have the right to complain about the emergence of hostile armed fundamentalist movements based on religious dogmas? Or do they actually prefer those as adversaries to civic groups struggling for their national rights?

In fact, Netanyahu’s strategy in the recent past was to bolster Hamas to divide and isolate the Palestinians. According to Times of Israel, in March 2019 Netanyahu told his Likud colleagues: “Anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas … This is part of our strategy – to isolate the Palestinians in Gaza from the Palestinians in the West Bank.” Bolstering extremism by the Israeli regime, in fact, clearly surfaced during the Palestinian uprising in 1987.

It was remarkable that the comments by the UN Chief Antonio Guterres that the recent attacks “did not happen in a vacuum” attracted such a rage in Israel, while its own founding leaders said much more than that. David Ben-Gurion, considered the father of the State of Israel, wrote: “We have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see only but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. How would they accept that?” Specifically related to the recent situation, albeit 68 years ago, Moshe Dayan, one of the most prominent Israeli chiefs of war, said in a eulogy of an Israeli settler killed in Gaza in 1955: “Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate.” It is contradictory to blame Guterres for his mild phrase, while Israel’s fathers said it bluntly. However, both Ben-Gurion and Dayan thought that securing Israel’s existence required eternal war with more military might and killing, disregarding the chance of peaceful co-existence.

Racism and extremism feed off each other; this dynamic exists even if a group showing these traits markets itself as a “democratic state.” A state that decides – even if supported by popular vote – to steal the land of another people, take away their human rights and kill them, cannot be labelled as a civilized member of the international community. In this case what is the role of the United Nations, human rights organizations and international courts? Isn’t it their mission to enforce international law and protect basic human rights when a country, even if it claims to be democratic, exceeds its limits? On the other hand, countries lose their credibility when they selectively support or condemn the occupation of an independent state against the will of its people, under any pretext – a principle which applies to all, to Ukrainians and Russians as much as to Palestinians and Israelis. In fact, it is shameful that the Ukrainian president unconditionally supports Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, as it is shameful that some Palestinians and Arabs support the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Or when some, same like Israel, do not recognize the International Criminal Court? This makes them lose the moral high ground to oppose Israel’s long record of ignoring rulings of international bodies related to settlements, and human rights in general.

The European Union leadership, the United States and other countries that have declared their unconditional support for acts that amount to nothing less than genocide, while ignoring historical oppression, lack any moral grounds to preach about climate change and protecting biodiversity. This is utmost hypocrisy, as if the millions of Palestinians deprived of their land and residing in filthy camps for decades have no right to the minimum requirements of decent human life, and as if wild animals in zoos have more rights. What about human dignity and diversity?

For some time, I have been faced with a troubling dilemma: What is the point of writing about topics such as climate change or protecting indigenous species of insects, plants, and animals from invasive alien species competing on their habitat, while a world claiming to be ‘civilized’ watches as human beings are expelled from their own land and massacred? When 80% of children in an occupied territory live with depression?

I was about to announce that I would stop writing about the environment, nature, and climate, to protest hypocrisy and express my disgust of double standards, when I received news that restored my confidence in the noble side of human nature. One major shift came when the climate action group, Extinction Rebellion, announced the integration of Palestinian civilians’ human rights into its campaign for climate justice, with its leaders stating that there is no place for environmental and climate justice while discriminating and ignoring human rights. The campaign began combining slogans which support human justice for Palestinians along with accelerating serious clmate action.

We also witnessed during this week the emergence of strong stances by various European political factions that reject the unconditional government support for the aggression and demand a solution to the essence of the problem, which is the recognition of the national rights of the Palestinians. A group of senior public servants in Europe and the United States called on their governments to stand against suppressing Palestinians’ human rights, and to put pressure to impose a just solution that preserves a decent life for all. Among the largest protest movements of the week were those organized by tens of thousands of American Jews across the United States against the war and genocide of the Palestinians, under the slogan “Not in our name,” demanding that the US government push for a just solution, based on solving the source of the problem, instead of encouraging the Israeli killing machine.

Such bright spots help restore faith in the good side of humanity. The Palestinians and their Arab neighbours must look carefully at the shift in public perception, and ally with those sympathetic to their cause. This starts with returning the struggle to its national principles, and not falling into the trap that encourages its transformation into a religious conflict.

The fight for climate justice cannot occur in vacuum, ignoring human suffering and rights. In all cases, if governments let you down, ally with the people.