Palestine: The environmental impact of Israel's military occupation

Samah Sabawi addresses the Climate Change, Social Change conference, October 1, 2011. Film produced by Jill Hickson and John Reynolds.

[The following talk and PowerPoint slides were presented to the World at a Crossroads: Climate Change, Social Change conference in Melbourne on October 1, 2011. Samah Sabawi is the public advocate for Australians for Palestine. For more material from the conference, click HERE.]

By Samah Sabawi

Posted October 30, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Thank you for asking me to take part in this conference and to add the voice of my people and their struggle for justice to your voices. There is great strength in solidarity and quite often, once we’ve peeled the external layers of what makes our individual causes unique, we quickly find that we are all in the same boat and that our fight for justice, equality and respect for the land shares many common threads.

Who we are

Let me start by introducing to you who the Palestinian people are and giving you a brief background to the conflict!

Palestinians are the indigenous inhabitants of the land that was once known as Palestine – and is now called Israel and the Occupied Territories. Palestinians were mostly a population of farmers – fellaheen – their view of their identity is therefore defined by their connectedness to the stones, the earth and the trees. They are the descendants of local inhabitants, mainly Christian and Jews who had converted after the Islamic conquest in the 17th century AD.

The average Palestinian tending his/her farm in the hills of Hebron is aware of the history of invaders and occupiers that have passed through their ancient land.

But today, these indigenous farmers of Palestine know that they face a bigger existential threat than ever before. No past occupation has caused as much damage to the soil, no former empire has inflicted this much pain on this ancient landscape. No past invaders’ have acted with so much impunity as to uproot thousands of trees, poison water wells and replace agricultural land with so much concrete and barbwire.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is a story about stolen land, exploitation of labour and theft of resources. It is a story about warehousing a people – mostly stateless refugees, in bantustans and behind high walls, forcing them to be a captive consumer market and a source of cheap labour.

This story provides a classic case for exploring the relationship between corporate greed and perpetual conflict.

The Occupied Territories: Captive consumers and cheap labour

The story of occupation began in 1967 when, as a result of the six-day war, Israel occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and parts of Sinai.

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which became the basis for future United Nations policymaking on the Middle East conflict.

The Resolution called for "withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict".

Until this day Israel continues to hold on to most of this land, which is now referred to as the Occupied Territories.

It is important to understand that immediately after the six-day war Israel found itself standing at a crossroads. It had two obvious choices: annex Gaza and the West Bank (seen here on this slide in yellow) and create one geopolitical and economic unit, which is what many today refer to as the one-state solution.

But Israel knew this would mean integrating the Palestinian people into Israeli society and giving them equal citizenship rights. That option would have meant altering Israel’s carefully created demographic balance as the indigenous Palestinian population would have made up half of the total population of the state of Israel – a state that defines itself by its Jewish ethnicity. The second option was for Israel to comply with international law and withdraw from the territories occupied and later have two political and economic units, two states, one Palestinian and one Israeli, living side by side. Israel was not interested back then in that option – as it is still not interested in it today.

What Israel wanted was the land and the resources, but without having to give any rights to the indigenous people who come with that land. So it decided on a third option: (limited) economic integration and practical elimination of the Green Line. The assumption here was that close economic dependency would prevent Palestinians from contesting Israeli occupation by force.

The result was that during more than 44 years of occupation the Israelis have confiscated a considerable proportion of the Occupied Territories pushing the Palestinians into smaller and more confined bantustans while implementing a policy of colonisation and exploitation of labour and resources.

Today inside the Occupied Territories there are almost 4 million Palestinians in total. All of them remain stateless and without any citizenship of any nation.

More than 1.5 million of them are refugees who have lost their homes inside Israel’s 1948 borders and have been denied the right to return.

There are also more than one and a half million Palestinians who remained inside Israel’s 1948 borders and who have become citizens of the state of Israel. They make up 20% of the population in Israel. They have the right to vote, but are treated as second-class citizens with more than 20 laws that specifically target and discriminate against them.

More than half of the West Bank which forms most of what is to be the future Palestine state has been annexed by Israel for its ever expanding Jewish only colonies, industrial zones, Israeli-only roads, checkpoints and security buffer zones. (See blue colour on the map below.)

To foster a Palestinian economic dependency, since 1967 Israel isolated the West Bank and Gaza strip from the rest of the world. Palestinians in the Occupied Territories were only allowed to trade with Israel (and only in a limited amount of agricultural goods with Jordan).

Israel monopolised the Palestinian captive consumer market, flooding it with Israeli goods and products, and at the same time through various tariffs and regulations, restricted the entry of Palestinian products into Israel.

Palestinians were forced to work in Israel as cheap labour and were not afforded many of the workers’ rights afforded to Israeli workers doing the same job.

Israel also strangled the Palestinian economy by placing restrictions on investment in agricultural and industrial production. For Palestinians who wished to build a factory or import equipment, a permit from the Israeli military governor was needed but was rarely attained.

Desperate for work Palestinians were willing to work on Israeli settlements and industrial zones in poor conditions, in low-paying jobs, most of them earning 30-50% less than Israelis working in the same occupation and sector.

The Occupied Territories became home to large Israeli industrial zones with corporations eager to escape Israel’s environmental regulations by taking advantage of the occupied territories and further making use of its captive and desperate Palestinian workers there.

Industrial zones: An assault on the environment

Although building and running Israeli industrial zones in the Occupied Territories is considered illegal under international law, still many Israeli businesses are lured there in order to qualify for the generous tax reductions offered by the government. An extra bonus for these businesses is the fact that once they set up in the Occupied Territories, they don’t have to deal with the strict environmental and labour regulations that are imposed inside of Israel’s 1948 borders. This is one reason why they tend to house a large number of industries that deal with toxic materials and harmful waste. Currently, it is estimated that there are more than 18 industrial zones in the Occupied Territories.

In the absence of proper checks to ensure Palestinian workers’ rights, these industries exploit Palestinian workers, paying them less than one-quarter that of what Israeli workers are paid. Even though Palestinian workers are made to pay for membership in the Histadrut (General Federation of Laborers in Israel) they are not entitled to become members and are not represented in labour disputes.

A report from Palestine Monitor, entitled Israel's Toxic Chemical Factories giving Cancer to West Bank Residents, offers a good example of the history and operation of some of these zones. This photo is of the Nitzanei Shalom (buds of peace) industrial zone, which sits between the West Bank town of Tulkarem and the border with Israel.

The land on which the industrial zone is built was expropriated by the Israeli army in the 1980s and has now become a site for dangerous chemical factories deemed illegal in Israel. One of these factories, according to the report, is Geshuri Industries, which produces pesticides, insecticides and fertilisers.

Geshuri Industries was relocated from its original site in an Israeli town called Kfar Saba after it was declared a health hazard, forcing it to close down in 1982. The owner avoided Israel’s strict environmental laws by moving the factory to Nitzanei Shalom in the Palestinian Occupied West Bank.

Once it was moved into the settlement in the West Bank, as is the case with all such factories, it fell under the jurisdiction of the Israeli Civil Administration – this is an area where the Palestinian Authority has no mandate.

Farming land that surrounds such factories are often victim to the chemical waste causing trees to lose their leaves and destroying the fertile nature of the soil. In this particular case, some vegetables still grow not far from the factory in the toxic ground and are actually sold in Palestinian markets in nearby towns.

The Palestine Monitor reports that the Geshuri factory operates for 11 months of the year. During this time, the winds blow the toxic fumes into the Palestinian areas. During the period when the wind changes direction and blows into Israel, the factory.

Israel Bypass Road Network

The settlements and their factories have also brought about a network of roads, the Israel Bypass Road Network (BRN). Palestinians are prohibited from using these roads. The BRN runs through some of the most fertile Palestinian land. According to this report by the Applied Research Institute Jerusalem (ARIJ), the BRN network has confiscated so far 110 kilometres of land from its Palestinian owners and farmers, further annexing up to 2% of the West Bank.

The Bypass Road Network is approximately 800 kilometres long with an average width of 20 meters. There are also buffers that are on average 120 meters wide that surround the roads. This land of course is inaccessible to the Palestinian farmers and therefore cannot be used for any agricultural or development initiatives.

The apartheid wall

Another feature of Israeli occupation is the construction of the apartheid wall. The wall is a combination of towering concrete, electric fences, ditches and barbed wire.

The wall is not built on the 1967 Green Line. In fact, almost 90% of the wall is built on Palestinian land, snaking its way through the West Bank. The wall’s construction has had a devastating impact on the environment, with the use of heavy machinery and millions of tons of concrete with all of the associated environmental concerns regarding carbon emissions and water consumption/contamination. Perhaps the worst of its impact has been the extensive destruction of natural habitats and agricultural land.

At a UN meeting in 2004 on the impact of the wall's construction George Khoury of the UNDP stated that more than 100,000 trees had been uprooted and 36,000 metres of irrigation works had been destroyed. “There is a close correlation to the destruction of natural resources and the walls construction”, Khoury said at the meeting. The ARIJ supported this analysis, quoting a World Bank report that some 170 square kilometres of fertile agricultural land had been affected by the wall -- amounting to more than10% of the total cultivated land of the West Bank with an average economic value of $38 million. That totals around 8% of annual Palestinian agricultural productivity.

The wall’s construction has isolated many wells and springs. Fifty-eight different water sources have been isolated by the wall, robbing Palestinian communities and farmers of 67.3 MCM of water per year. As a result, many farming families and communities are unable to survive and to maintain their lands.

Another negative impact is the wall’s interference with the natural drainage systems in the West Bank, where the wall wraps itself entirely around Palestinian towns -- as was the case with the city of Qalqilia.

Qalqilia is completely surrounded by the apartheid wall. In times of high rainfall this has caused flooding and substantial environmental and agricultural damage.

In February 2009, due to a prolonged period of heavy rainfall and the obstruction the wall created for natural drainage, 150 dunums planted with vegetables and 15 dunums of citrus tree orchards were flooded and the crops destroyed. The flooding also severely damaged many greenhouses and chicken coops.

Theft of water

Since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, it has forcibly controlled all the water resources in those areas. In fact, one of the first military orders of the occupation was the confiscation of almost all West Bank wells.

Since then, drilling for new wells has been banned and quotas have been imposed on the existing ones. Water that was allocated to the Palestinians was capped at 1967 levels despite the growth in population over the years. It is reported that Israel uses 73% of the West Bank’s water, it diverts an additional10% of it to the illegal Jewish-only settlements and it sells to the Palestinians the remaining 17%, of what in fact is their own water.

The water allocated to the Palestinians translates to 83 cubic metres of water per Palestinian per year, compared to 333 cubic metres per Israeli per year. In other words, each Israeli consumes as much water as four Palestinians.

In the Gaza Strip, where the population relies predominately on ground wells, water is increasingly infiltrated by salty sea water because of Israel over-pumping the groundwater. This theft is considered illegal under international law.

As a result, Gaza is facing a severe water crisis and UN scientists have warned that Gaza will have no drinkable water within 15 years.

Here is an excerpt from Amnesty International’s recent report on water in Israel and Palestine, Thirsting for Justice:

The inequality is even more pronounced between Palestinian communities and unlawful Israeli settlements, established in the OPT in violation of international law. Swimming pools, well-watered lawns and large irrigated farms in Israeli settlements in the OPT stand in stark contrast next to Palestinian villages whose inhabitants struggle even to meet their essential domestic water needs. In parts of the West Bank, Israeli settlers use up to 20 times more water per capita than neighboring Palestinian communities, who survive on barely 20 liters of water per capita a day – the minimum amount recommended by the WHO for emergency situations response.

Five-star occupation

It has often been said that this is a five-star occupation, in which Israel stands to gain everything and loses nothing.

A Palestinian Authority ministry and national research institute released a joint study that estimates that the Israeli occupation has cost the Palestinian economy around $7 billion in 2010 and that without Israel’s control of resources and access to Palestinian territories, the economy “would run a ‘healthy’ fiscal surplus, ending its dependence on donors' aid”.

The research estimated that Israel’s ban on Palestinian access to the Jordan River, Dead Sea and groundwater aquifers in the West Bank cost Palestinians $1.9 billion in lost agriculture revenues, $1.2 billion in mineral resources and $143 million in Dead Sea tourism. The study also found that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip cost the Palestinian economy $1.9 billion, and restrictions on water another $1.9 billion.

But perhaps most telling was the study’s finding that Israel earns around $900 million per year through control of West Bank mining and quarrying and $150 million from commercial Dead Sea products.

My friends, this is a very profitable occupation! It is one that feeds corporate ambitions at the expense of land and people.


Throughout its 44 years of occupation, Israel has shown a total disregard for the indigenous people, the earth and the environment. There was no way I could capture in 20 minutes the many issues related to Israel and the environmental impact of its occupation and military actions.

I would have needed an entire day to discuss the effect of its three weeks of bombardment of Gaza and its use of white phosphorous on the soil, the water and people. I would have needed hours to talk about the effect of its bombardment of the Gaza power plant and the sewage floods that resulted from that. More time needs to be given to discuss the effect of Israel’s nuclear plant on residents nearby and the dramatic rise in cancer cases. But with what little time I have left I would like to highlight the need to stop Israel’s aggression on the land, the people and the environment.

In 2005, Palestinian civil society called upon international civil society organisations and people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era, as a non-violent tool to hold Israel accountable for its violations of Palestinian rights and freedom. I hope that you consider heeding their call!

I am thankful that I had the chance to be the voice of my people in this conference and I hope that what little information I have given today will help shed some light on the truly ugly face of war and occupation.

Thank you!