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  • Allison Gable

NO CLIMATE JUSTICE WITHOUT JUSTICE IN PALESTINE

BY ALLISON GABLE


Author’s note: This article criticizes the state of Israel and the political project of Zionism, neither of which are representative of Judaism or all Jews. Zionism is a political ideology based on ethnic nationalism, pushing for the creation of a Jewish state on Palestinian land. Zionists often seek to conflate the state of Israel with Judaism and Jewish people as a whole in an attempt to use accusations of antisemitism to deflect legitimate criticism of Israel. However, anti-Zionism is not antisemitism; furthermore, this article draws on the courageous activism and scholarship of Jewish allies for justice in Palestine, whose humanity and whose religion compels them to be anti-Zionist. 



Palestinian farmers eat watermelon as they work during harvest season in Beith Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, June 2021. Watermelon, which shares colors with the Palestinian flag, has become a symbol of resistance due to myths of it being used in place of the flag, which was at one point banned in occupied Palestine. Image source: Mohammed Abed


You may have heard the term “climate justice” before, often in relation to healing environmental injustices within a city or helping poorer countries adapt to climate impacts. The United Nations Development Programme defines the term as “putting equity and human rights at the core of decision-making and action on climate change.” 


No conversation about equity and human rights at the present moment is complete if we stay silent on the current genocide happening in Gaza, as well as the 75 years of injustice in Palestine that preceded it. When we imagine what “climate justice” would mean for all life, lands, and seas sharing our Earth, that imagination must include a liberated Palestine where all people, regardless of religion or ethnicity, have freedom of movement and equal rights from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinian refugees must be able to return safely to their homeland to reconstruct destroyed communities and reclaim stewardship of the land, towards a healed and sustainable future for all. 


A climate-just world cannot involve Palestinians being stopped at military checkpoints throughout their own territory, confined to borders imposed on their own land, denied full civil rights, evicted from their homes, brutally imprisoned for little or no reason, and continually massacred to make way for Israeli expansion—yet, this has been business as usual for the past several decades. Letting the current genocide reach its intended completion cannot be an option either. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere—therefore global climate justice can only be achieved if Palestine is truly free.


If we dig deeper, we find that climate justice and justice in Palestine are even more intertwined than one might expect. Israeli settler colonialism and apartheid has created and perpetuated significant environmental and climate injustice in Palestine for generations, from the Nakba to the present day. The process of ethnic cleansing in Palestine has been deeply intertwined with ecocide and other landscape degradation, both in the day-to-day violence of settler expansion and in the acute violence of bombing Palestinian land. At the same time, the state of Israel invokes claims of eco-friendliness to distract from its human rights violations, using claims of environmental conservation as justification for land theft. For all of these reasons, the struggle for justice in Palestine and the struggle for climate justice are deeply interconnected. 


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Israeli settler colonialism, like settler colonialism elsewhere, has been deeply tied up with land and ecology since the beginning—a relationship exemplified in changes to the land’s trees. 


Since the Nakba of 1948, in which the newly-established state of Israel violently expelled over 750,000 Palestinians from their homelands, the continuing ethnic cleansing of Palestinian cities has taken place alongside massive ecological changes to the conquered landscapes. In what some have dubbed an “environmental Nakba”, native trees such as oaks, carobs, and hawthorns, alongside Palestinian agricultural crops such as olives, figs, and almonds, were systematically uprooted and replaced with European pines as a way to destroy Palestinian livelihoods and claim land for Israeli settlers. 


Additionally, from 1967—when Israel began its illegal and ongoing occupation of the remaining Palestinian territories, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem—to 2013, Israeli authorities uprooted over 800,000 olive trees. In the early 2000s, tens of thousands of olive trees, many hundreds of years old, were uprooted by Israeli bulldozers to build the West Bank Separation Wall, also called the Apartheid Wall, in the occupied West Bank. 


This ecocide has been carried out by settlers themselves in addition to the Israeli government and military. Israeli settlers in the West Bank have intentionally set fire to Palestinian crops and orchards to destroy Palestinian livelihoods and aid settler expansion. The director of the Palestinian Agricultural Damage Documentation Department in 2020 claimed that “Israeli settlers have uprooted, burned down and chemically poisoned 101,988 olive trees since 2010.”


This deliberate destruction of native trees and Palestinian orchards, including olive trees, can be seen as a campaign to sever Palestinians' connection to their land—a strategy akin to white settlers’ slaughter of buffalo in North America to irreparably disrupt Indigenous life across the Great Plains. Sabotage of annual olive harvests, while garnering less media attention than tactics of direct military violence, has been a key strategy to undermine Palestinian economic stability in service of Israel’s goals of ethnic cleansing. 


Palestinians pick olives during the harvest season in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 5, 2023. Image source: Said Khatib


Additionally, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of olive trees has had extremely detrimental environmental effects. When they are uprooted, burned, chopped down, or poisoned, olive groves’ previous role as a carbon sink becomes reversed and greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere; the soil previously held by their roots becomes vulnerable to erosion, and releases carbon as well. 


Furthermore, the millions of non-native trees, most of which are pine, planted by entities such as the Jewish National Fund (JNF) throughout this process have degraded the stolen land on which they were planted. By shedding acidic needles, pine trees alter the chemistry of the surrounding soil, making the land inedible for Palestinian shepherds’ flocks and difficult to grow agricultural crops on. The trees’ resin also makes them flammable and highly vulnerable to wildfires—already an increasing threat in our changing climate. The mass planting of pines has destroyed Palestine’s biodiversity, with the Israeli planted forests even being termed “pine deserts” by environmentalists. Additionally, because pine trees’ dark leaves absorb solar radiation that desert sands would have reflected back into space, many planted forests such as the Yatir forest have actually caused warming in their surrounding area, damaging the climate even further.


Zionists have often proclaimed that Israel has “made the desert bloom”—a falsehood echoing other European colonial rhetoric and wrongly implying that colonizers, through their superior knowledge and technology, successfully engineered and cultivated land that was mismanaged under its indigenous population. This claim is decisively false for many reasons: for example, most agricultural land in Israel today was originally cultivated by Palestinians before they were ethnically cleansed from the area. Additionally, the amount of cultivated land in Palestine’s southern Naqab desert dropped significantly after the Nakba because of the dispossession of Palestinian Bedouins who managed the lands using traditional farming and water preserving techniques.


Moreover, by systematically planting non-native flora to convert Palestine’s diverse indigenous landscapes into landscapes that look more European, Israel has not produced positive environmental effects—as “making the desert bloom” attempts to imply—but instead has created a crisis of sustainability. 


Trees planted by the Jewish National Fund on sand dunes south of Beersheba. Image source: Fazal Sheikh


This production of new, colonized landscapes goes hand in hand with how the Israeli settler state seeks to obscure Palestinian history and ties to the land by wiping out visual evidence of what indigenous Palestine looks like. Israel has planted many pine forests to conceal forcibly depopulated Palestinian villages and prevent the return of refugees. Palestinian-American writer Sara Aziza describes an instance in which this “memoricide” was starkly uncovered


On August 15, 2021, wildfires engulfed the forested hills outside Jerusalem. The blaze raged for three days, consuming nearly five thousand acres of trees. When the smoke cleared, a startling sight appeared: the remains of numerous Palestinian villages and six-hundred-year-old terraced farms. These traces of Palestinian history, including what once was acres of olive and fig groves, had lain hidden beneath European pine.


Jewish writer Taya Amit testifies that although pine trees are historically a symbol of peace in Judaism, Zionism has turned the pine into a symbol of violence and erasure of Palestinian history and heritage. The planting of pine trees has been a way to impose control on stolen land and claim it as Israel’s, making Palestine’s appearance echo the European landscapes familiar to settlers while obscuring how native ecosystems originally looked. In this context, Amit observes that the olive tree has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance to colonialism, embodying defiance and endurance—a visual representation of Palestinians’ historical ties to the land.


An old olive tree sits atop the spring hills of Ramallah, in the West Bank. Image source: Imad Hussein


Beyond trees, the ecology of Zionist settler colonialism has also weaponized water. Israel has confiscated aquifers for their own use and to restrict what water Palestinians are able to have. Soon after Israel illegally occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967, military authorities confiscated control over all water resources and infrastructure. 


As a result, approximately 91% of the West Bank’s water resources are expropriated for use by Israeli settlers—and then, a fraction of the water that Palestinians in the West Bank once had natural access to is sold back to them at inaccessibly high prices. Around August 2023, Palestinians in the West Bank told AP they could barely get enough water to bathe children and wash clothes. It is common for people and crops alike to go thirsty in the West Bank while neighboring Israeli settlements have enough water to fill swimming pools and grow water-intensive export crops like grapes. 


This water apartheid Israel has executed for decades exacerbates the effects of climate change on the region’s water supply—while aquifers and other water resources dry up from drought in a changing climate, Israeli settlements continue to draw large amounts of usable water, intentionally leaving Palestinians with a contaminated, scarce water supply. B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, writes


One group enjoys the luxuries afforded by a first-world water superpower, its lifestyle effectively impervious to weather conditions and climate change. The other – Palestinian subjects – suffers a chronic water crisis that stands to grow along with climate change… This dehumanization also enables… Israel [to] rob them of what little possessions and land they have left and take over as much territory as possible, all in order to continue its settlement project and the dispossession of Palestinians.


(L) Palestinian Bedouins drink water from a cistern in the Jordan Valley. (R) Israeli children swim in a pool at a settlement in the Jordan Valley. This engineered disparity in access to water is a clear example of Israel’s water apartheid. Image source: AP


In addition to creating a scarce, expensive, and tightly controlled Palestinian water supply, the apartheid Israeli state sanctions environmental racism by designating the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as sites for waste, pollution, and extraction. The data activist group Visualizing Palestine has dubbed this process “toxic occupation”, referring to how Israel “exploits the West Bank to dump and process its waste,” including hazardous waste and untreated wastewater. Additionally, after illegally occupying the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel provided tax incentives for highly polluting companies to move into these territories. 


Israel further pollutes the environment in the OPT through its maintenance of imposed borders. For example, Palestinian farmers and the Red Cross have testified to the damage of herbicides sprayed through the air around the border of the Gaza Strip. These herbicides have had the effect of killing Palestinian crops and leading to long-term health complications for residents of Gaza, harming the environment and humans at the same time. The toxicity of Israel’s domination over Palestine over the past several decades of military occupation has created injustice for both Palestinians and their land, whose lives are intertwined. 


Despite the environmental atrocities Israel has committed—including the ecocide of Palestinian trees and crops, water apartheid, and toxic occupation—Israel has claimed itself to be a “green” power. For example, in 2012 the State of Israel launched an international television campaign on CNN to promote itself as a leader in green technology. Israel’s Environmental Protection Minster at the time was quoted as saying, “Israel has solutions for the challenges facing the world today, such as the shortages of food and water. The campaign raises the international awareness of Israel as a global leader in green innovation.” 


By posing as benevolent and eco-friendly, Israel has attempted to use this PR campaign to distract from, or “greenwash”, its human rights abuses, including the crimes of military occupation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. Israel uses the veneer of climate mitigation and adaptation to reinforce its settler colonial power structure—for example, by justifying land grabs through claims of ‘environmental conservation’ and designating stolen land as “protected areas”, or by selling water from a desalination plant to parched neighbor-country Jordan, while hoarding and overconsuming water from the Jordan River. Israel has also publicly committed to net zero emissions by 2050, despite activists’ claims that pursuit of Gaza’s oil and gas resources could be a factor motivating the ongoing genocide.


Although Israel attempts to take the moral high ground by appealing to environmental sensibilities, this is only a rhetorical strategy to garner support. In reality, Israel’s settler colonialism, apartheid, and military occupation has created dire environmental degradation and injustice in Palestine, with effects felt across the entire region. Any green technology the state touts as proof of its climate leadership cannot be divorced from the context of its exploitation and domination of Palestine; solar power and carbon offsets cannot overwrite Israel’s long history of ecocide and other environmental harm. 


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This article has focused on the long history of climate injustice in Palestine as a means to paint a broad and complete picture—as many have noted, the story of what’s happening today didn’t start on October 7. However, since Israel’s weaponization of the recent Hamas attack as justification for their indiscriminate slaughter of Palestinian civilians through the widespread bombing of Gaza—including hospitals, ambulances, refugee camps, schools, and mosques—a massive amount of destruction has been inflicted on Palestine in a short amount of time. Therefore, it’s necessary to look specifically at the human and environmental impacts of the current genocide, in addition to the larger history of climate injustice that has been described. 


A 2015 study by the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network interviewed environmental experts on the impacts of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, during which Israel dropped 21,000 tonnes (over 23,000 U.S. tons) of explosives on the Gaza Strip (141 square miles). The experts in the study agreed that this bombing may have seriously harmed the health of the soil, and may lead to water quality degradation as heavy metal contamination in the soil moves down to water sources. Toxic and even radioactive heavy metals, byproducts of the bombing, were assessed to have serious long-term health impacts on the land and environment, as well as the human health that depends on it. 


There is no final count to the bombs dropped on Gaza today, because the bombings have not ended. On November 9, after only about a month of Israel’s siege on Gaza, Al Jazeera cited a figure of 25,000 tonnes (over 27,000 U.S. tons) since October 7. They stated that this was roughly equivalent to two nuclear bombs. As of early January 2024, the figure was closer to 65,000 tonnes (over 71,000 U.S. tons). Unless a permanent ceasefire is implemented, the figure will only keep climbing.


Although the environmental impact of the ongoing, intensive bombing of the Gaza Strip is yet to be known, it will no doubt have long-lasting effects on the health and contamination of soil and water, just like Israel’s bombing campaigns before this one did. These long-term impacts are in addition to the immediate environmental impact of explosive weapons—massive amounts of debris and waste from buildings and homes reduced to rubble, pollution from damage to industrial facilities and wastewater infrastructure. 


A new study suggests that the first 60 days of Israel’s military response to the Oct. 7 attack was equivalent to burning at least 150,000 tonnes (over 165,000 U.S. tons) of coal—more than the annual carbon footprint of 20 of the world’s most climate vulnerable nations. Almost half of the total CO2 emissions came from the U.S. transporting military supplies to Israel by cargo plane. The climate aftereffects of Israel’s brutal military siege—and U.S. support of it—will prove an additional danger to the future of Palestine, located in a region where temperatures are projected to continue rising at a faster rate than the global average.


To rebuild their homeland, Palestinians will have to deal with challenges of destroyed infrastructure, a decimated and colonized landscape, polluted waters and soils, damaged ecosystems and cropland, increased climate vulnerability, and lack of resources to adapt to climate impacts—all in addition to unimaginable human loss and trauma. Despite this, they have a right to try to face these challenges as a free and sovereign people. As Greta Thunberg has recently proclaimed: no climate justice on occupied land. 


Greta Thunberg and other activists protest outside of the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Image source: Greta Thunberg


Your environmentalism is flawed if you would let Israel annex and settle the remaining Palestinian territories, made empty via ethnic cleansing and genocide, as long as they implement green technology and plant more trees on the stolen land. Any solar panels or wind turbines they might try to build in Gaza post-genocide would be built over a graveyard of children’s bones. We cannot accept this settler-colonial, genocidal “climate action” as a potential outcome; our demands as environmentalists lose any moral legitimacy if we do not value human life as an equally sacred part of nature. We must stand with the people of Palestine and look instead towards Palestinian environmentalism to lead climate action on their own land.


Climate justice is more than just pointing out statistics about disproportionate impacts and vulnerabilities. It is an ongoing struggle for collective liberation—a livable and fair future for all humans and the environment we are inseparable from, through the dismantling and replacement of the unjust and unfree systems we currently live under. Because of the interconnected nature of oppression, colonialism, and capitalist exploitation across the world, Palestine’s freedom is intertwined with ours. For example, the same British multinational corporation once profited off both the American prison industrial complex and Israeli apartheid, before a successful BDS campaign threatened their profits and led them to divest from Israel in June 2023. 


By learning from each others’ struggles and practicing solidarity, we build our collective power to make change, and weaken the forces that have a vested interest in perpetuating our unjust and environmentally unsustainable world systems. Climate justice anywhere will only be achievable and lasting if we resolve to stand against climate injustice everywhere—therefore, there can be no climate justice without justice in Palestine.


As climate activists who claim to care for the environment and for human life, we must not turn a blind eye to the historical and ongoing destruction of Palestinian life, land, and culture. Our commitment to climate justice must compel us to fight for the liberation of Palestine from the injustice and environmental degradation it has faced for far too long. With international solidarity, we can help create a future where Palestinian children play in an unpolluted sea under their family’s loving watch, or rest peacefully, eyes shut but breathing, beneath the branches of a sturdy olive tree. 


Palestinians enjoy the day on the beach in the Mediterranean Sea during a heat wave in Gaza City, July 2023. Image source: Fatima Shbair


Kids from Gaza enjoy the view of the sea during the temporary ceasefire, November 2023. Image source: Ebraheem Matar



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