Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Systems of Occupation Add Up to Environmental Racism

“Recognizing Palestinians have equal rights to the land doesn’t make you anti-Semitic. It makes you a rational person… Is that allowed?” (From interview with “Rinat”)

The goal of any settler movement is to expropriate increasing plots of land from those who live on it to those who “should” live on it. The settler movement in Israel is often excused from its actions, and comparisons to South Africa or early America are brushed away because these Jewish settlers are not colonists, “but returning natives” (Mamdani, 244). The settlement of the state of Israel was seen as a “return home, but a return so marked by a callous disregard for the rights of those who were already home, who had never left home” (Mamdani, 246). Settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, which is internationally recognized as illegal and in violation of UN resolutions and human rights, did not begin until after the 1967 war of Arab aggression and so is seen as legitimized by some hard right Zionists. However, the continual civilian settlement in the Occupied Territories is inexcusable. Even most American Zionists at this point agree that “of course Israel should stop settlement construction” (Mordecai, personal interview), as is evident in the growing support for groups like Americans for Peace Now (the American lobby in support for Israeli settlement watchdog organization Shalom Achshav), J Street, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, all self-proclaimed progressive Zionist organizations that promote a peaceful, just two-state solution, requiring the pullout of civilian settlements in the Occupied Territories, and the breakdown of the Barrier, or at the very least, a rerouting of the Barrier so that it actually follows the Green Line (to be discussed further down).

Map from

The motives behind the settlement movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories vary by settler, or more likely, settlement, and the processes by which settlement is accomplished are many. For the Israeli government and military, supported by right wing Zionist organizations, the impetus for this settlement process is to establish a “demographical balance” (Weizman, 126) between Jews and Arabs in the Occupied Territories in an effort to suppress and thus more easily control Palestinians, under the guise of security needs. For the ultra-Orthodox, the goal is to settle “Judea and Samaria” (the biblical names for the area now encompassing the West Bank, adopted officially as the Zionist term for the West Bank in 1967 as a part of rhetoric of the ancestral right Jews have to the land) in order to be closer to the places of biblical importance in the West Bank. These ultra-Orthodox settlers are actually anti-Zionist, as they “don’t consider Israel a true state until the Messiah himself (it will be a him, in their mind; not a her for sure) lands on the holy ground” (Mort, I have seen some settlers fight IDF soldiers; I can only conclude that they have no respect for the government that protects them, and often cause more trouble for the Israeli government and military than the Arab residents of the region that the government chooses to vilify.

The majority of these settlements are built on the West Bank’s hilltops. Though this is highly strategic for Israel – in that, from the hilltops, the civilian settlers are safer from potential terrorist attacks from the Palestinians living in the valleys below and the military settlements are a point that makes constant surveillance of the Palestinians living in the valleys below for further security – this utilization of the high grounds actually turned out to be legally convenient for Israel. In 1979, under pressure from Palestinian farmers and Israeli and international human rights organizations, the Israeli High Court of Justice declared the use of the language of “temporariness” surrounding the early settlement building[1] null and void, based on the fact that entire families were being moved in, synagogues were built, etc. These settlements also did not solely fulfill the requirement of military necessity, being that they housed civilians. However, the Court did not directly outlaw settlements in general. Having lost the loophole of “temporality,” the Israeli government looked to history for another way to legitimize their land-grabbing.

According to Ottoman Law, any land that had not been cultivated for three consecutive years automatically became public land, called “makhlul.” Public land can also become privately owned, if it is cultivated for ten consecutive years by a single farmer. Israeli law allows the state to claim any public land as its own to use as it sees fit. All land that the Palestinians could not prove ownership to, and even land that could be proven as private but could not be proven as being cultivated for three consecutive years, was claimed as “state land” for settlement building. Most often, these were plots of land that were unsuitable for farming, such as the tops of the hills, where soil is too rocky and water does not collect. By the 1990s, if one were to draw a horizontal line a few hundred meters above the sea level across the West Bank, almost all of the land above the line would be Israel-owned, about 38% of the total land mass of the West Bank (Weizman, 117).

When this program of claiming uncultivated land began, many Palestinian farmers began fervently planting on their unused plots of land, in an attempt to prove their ownership over the land. In response, the Jewish National Fund began planting pine trees wherever they legally could. Pine trees not only grow quickly, but also deposit acidic needles which kill all other plant life that share the same plots of soil. These trees created the “Green Belt,” realizing the Zionist mission to make the desert green in the aesthetic of the European lands from whence they came, and purposely made the land unsuitable for anything else, to allow for further claims to state land (Weizman, 127).

Sometimes, the Israeli government would find pieces of land that were “unused” that it could claim for settlement that surrounded an island of Palestinian-owned orchard. For the first thirty years of the Occupation, these Palestinian farmers were able to get permits to cross through the Jewish settlements to get to their orchards. In 2000, however, at the start of the second Intifada, these permits were revoked, forcing Palestinians to leave these plots of land unfarmed for three consecutive years, and allowing the settlements to move in to these islands (Weizman, 117).

Furthermore, some of the so-called uncultivated plots of land were actually used for other purposes, such as grazing lands, and were indeed important to Palestinian livelihood. The confiscation of these lands illustrates Israel’s environmental condescension toward Arabs, as is described below in relation to leftist Israeli politician Alon Tal, in the assumption that the Palestinians did not know how to properly use their land. Not only did the Zionists not understand that there could be different ways to properly utilize a desert environment without planting or developing extensively, but by taking away grazing lands, and pushing Arab herders into increasingly small areas, they opened up the issue of over-grazing in other areas, creating entirely new environmental problems.

Separation Barrier through Beit Jalla

The Separation Barrier (the neutral term, though it is also known as the Apartheid Wall by the Palestinian Solidarity Movement and the Security Fence by the Israeli government and right wing Zionists) serves similar purposes as the settlements. Also under the pretense of “security needs,” which is a real concern but not entirely genuine in the building of this project, the Barrier allows the Israeli government and military to limit Palestinian movement, access to cultivatable land, and to expropriate lands for Israeli use. The Barrier project was developed with the policy-makers’ tool of “constructing inevitability” in mind (Latour), meaning that the possibility of the project was framed in such a way that made the wall sound like the only possible answer to the security threat from the Palestinians living under Occupation. The Israeli general public supported the building of the Barrier before the route was actually mapped out, because it was presented as the only effective solution to the security problem.

There were two theoretical notions of building inevitability employed in the building of the Barrier. The first is the Constructionist heuristic (the truth of a theory or the success of a project is the result of – not the reason for – its stabilization and acceptance), which is to say, the Barrier was proposed as the only answer for keeping so-called terrorists out of Israel and only after it is built could results be seen. This plays into the canonization process of building inevitability, the framing of a “project box” such that debate is made impossible, and convincing the public that it already approves (i.e. the Israeli public has always approved of reducing terrorist attacks, and the Barrier is the only way to keep out terrorists, ergo, the public has always approved of the Barrier). The Constructionist heuristic moves along this canonization process by eliminating debate through the claim that only after the Barrier is built and stabilized will Israelis see the decrease in terrorist attacks and fully accept the Barrier. The second notion employed by the constructionists responsible for the Barrier is the use of a “Whig history” (Latour), which is the process of rewriting a storyline after the project is built to establish its success, in the vein of “history is written by the victor.” Statistics, according to the Israeli government, do show that terrorist attacks within Israel have decreased since the building of the Barrier. So, according to the Israel government, the Barrier was clearly the only answer, as promised.

The third notion of building inevitability, clearly not employed in building the Barrier, is the act of putting enough resources and support into a project, such that overturning it becomes more expensive than the building of the project itself. The Barrier has been the most expensive project in the history of the State of Israel, costing $3 billion (a great deal of which was borrowed from the United States). It seems that almost any solution to the problems of violence coming out of the West Bank, even if begun after beginning the building of the Barrier, would have been more financially feasible.

But how do these awful and seemingly separate symptoms of the Occupation play into the water crises and the hope for environmental paths for peace? First of all, it is important to note how the Barrier and the settlers are intertwined with one another. The Barrier does not follow the Green Line, an issue on which Israeli public opinion is not as unified as it is on the building of the Barrier itself. Much of where it zigzags over the Green Line into Palestinian Territory is in areas where settlements have been, or are planned to be, built. Though this is done, for “security reasons,” to protect the settlers, it is done extravagantly to allow for further settlement growth and further expropriation of Palestinian resources. Lara Friedman from Americans for Peace Now says it best in her “Settlements in Focus – Top 5 Bogus Excuses for Opposing a Settlement Freeze” ( She explains the expanding of settlements based on the Barrier like a hand print: “Splay your fingers wide apart and … trace your handprint. Your handprint represents the built-up area of a settlement. Draw another line connecting your fingers… this line represents the land the settlers might argue is, in effect, already part of the built-up area. Draw a circle around the handprint, leaving a few inches of empty space between this new line and the handprint inside. This line represents the security fence surrounding the settlement, which the settlers might argue is already in effect the ‘footprint’ of the settlement on the ground.” They will keep building until they run out of land or legal loopholes to keep building on.

The Barrier not only closes off land from Palestinians so that the settlers can expand, it also separates families. There are many Palestinians between the Green Line and the Barrier within the West Bank and in the disputed Jerusalem area, totaling a staggering 250,000 people who are caught in closed military zones, or No Man’s Land, and cannot access their families, jobs, or farms (Weizman, 25). During the Machon Arava mid-semester field trip, we stayed in a hotel in Beit Jalla, an East Jerusalem village. One Palestinian student’s grandfather lived right next the hotel, but on the other side of the Barrier, which cuts through Beit Jalla. It was frustrating for him to spend two nights so close to family he could not visit and even that frustration pales in comparison with the frustration of those for whom the Barrier separates from their livelihood.

More to the point of the environmental misappropriation, the settlements, as they are built on high ground, often rest upon water extraction points on the hilltops. In some areas where the settlements are not so directly on top of a water extraction point, the Barrier is built around the nearest one, so as to still allow the settlers access to Palestinian water. The settlements themselves were largely constructed to be Zionist farms or a utopian “Garden City,” in the case of Ma’ale Adumim, one of the early settlements in the northern area of the West Bank. Though, as was already mentioned, the hilltop land was largely unsuitable for farming, thus making it legally possible for Israel to claim, this did not stop the settlements from trying to farm, and using a lot of water in the process. Even now, in the recruitment of new settlers, this image of “greening the desert” is used, through names like “The King’s Garden,” which is what the mayor of Jerusalem calls the area of Silwan that he would like to Judaize. The Israeli press reported in March Mayor Barkat’s plan to demolish 40 Arab houses in the area, in the effort to rebuild “the ‘gate of Paradise,’ where… the garden will one day be restored to its heyday, and those who come here … will feel exactly as King Solomon did when he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes among the perfumed gardens and the roses that are mentioned in the Song of Songs” (Shalom Yerushalmi, Ma’ariv). The settlers are also enticed to Judea and Samaria with panoramic images, though they are often actually pictures of Palestinian orchards in the valleys below the settlements themselves.

In addition to the settlements and Barrier being an excuse for Israel to expropriate land and water resources, the settlements also add to the large problem of waste water treatment that Palestinians face. Both in Gaza and the West Bank, due to the Israeli Occupation’s pressure on the Palestinian economy, infrastructure is poorly maintained. Particularly near the refugee camps, effluence runs over the ground, untreated, and damages the environmental stability of the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that the settlements could get the means from Israel to build waste water treatment facilities in their camps, they often do not. It is unclear if this is the choice of the settlers or the government, and I suspect it is because land is limited (legally speaking), and they (the settlers or the government) do not want to use it for such facilities when they could be using it to add more Jews to the demographics of “Judea and Samaria.” Because of their strategic placement on hilltops, however, this problem often just runs down into the Palestinian valleys below, and has little effect on the settlers themselves. In the Occupied territories, there are fewer environmental regulations and Israel has found it economically and morally convenient to blame Palestinian lack of interest in the environment for the levels of pollution in the area, while Israel continues to dump its waste into the West Bank (Freijat, 169).

Much of the Zionist rhetoric in settling and developing desert lands involves the condescension toward Arab use of land. In the first decade of the Occupation, Moshe Dayan’s Likud government used a process of “enlightened colonialism… [leaving] orchards and culture” in Palestinian regions around the settlements. In this time, Israel provided advanced agricultural tools, genetically modified seeds that grew better in the tough desert soil and money for Palestinian farmers, and agricultural productivity increased 16 percent annually on Palestinian farms, in the hopes of establishing a friendly relationship with their occupied people. This went on until the Likud government realized that this was counter-productive to increasing settlement growth. Although the productivity did not immediately cease after Israel stopped providing farming paraphernalia, as the water quotas for Palestinians continuously decreased in the subsequent thirty years, so did productivity, eventually leaving more lands uncultivated for Israel to take.
In some places around the borders of the West Bank and Israel, the Barrier has been rerouted over the Green Line into Palestinian territory without the need of settlements and the pretext of security. In many areas, the environmentalist movements within Israel lobbied for rerouting the Barrier in order to preserve “special and sensitive areas like cliffs and springs or eagle nests” (Weizman, 169) or in one particular case, a wild grove of rare irises that grow close to the Green Line, the implication being that Arabs are uncultured and do not know how to take care of the wildlife if left on their side of the Barrier.

Alon Tal is a revered Israeli environmentalist and politician for the left-wing party Megama Yarooka (Green Party). When he came to the Arava Institute for a week to guest teach, most of the Israelis and even some of the Americans behaved as if we were in the presence of the Messiah. The students of Machon Arava, which is supposed to be an organization completely unaffiliated with any political movement, staged a rally in the Northern Negev for Megama Yarooka. Alon Tal is the unofficial mascot for Israeli environmentalism, so much so that our peace-building environmentalist cohabitation program hung onto every green word he said.

But beneath his progressive ideals, Alon Tal is also an American expatriate. Like the chaverim living on Kibbutz Ketura, he felt Zionism was a cause worthy of picking up his life in the states and moving to Israel. When talking about pollution in the Israel/Palestine region, he hones in on any opportunity to blame the Arab population. When talking about the Yarkon River, made famous when a bridge collapsed, dumping high-profile athletes into the river below during the opening procession of the Maccabee Games (Jewish Olympics), he is quick to point out that the accelerated levels of pollution came from “Samaria” (Tal, 7). From the pollution levels alone, three of the athletes died, and many more have permanent crippling illnesses, and Tal has no problem insinuating that this level of pollution (and subsequently the deaths of the athletes) is the fault of the Palestinians. A few years later, Tal made similarly thinly-veiled racist comments, naming the Bedouin as one of Israel’s top ten greatest environmental threats in a Ma’ariv (an Israeli daily newspaper) article. Tal does not go on to point out that the Occupation of the West Bank has made infrastructural upkeep and improvements difficult, causing waste water treatment facilities to fall by the wayside. Nor does he mention Israel’s development of the Negev, refusal to recognize Bedouin villages, or general ignorance and negligence of this entire sect of their residents, all of which may contribute to the recently escalated environmental damage caused by Bedouin habits, which are – admittedly – environmentally unfriendly.

It is this lack of official recognition, coming even from the Left, which deters environmental cooperation, and does not encourage grassroots environmental movements within Arab communities. Israelis revere the environment, but “the Palestinian Arabs who dwell in it are viewed as part of its natural features – a kind of fauna: objects, not subjects” (Tal, 33). However, all hope is not lost. Beside his apparent underlying personal racisms (which many of his fellow politicians unfortunately share), Tal is a true environmentalist, and a smart man. He knows that the pro-peace camps and the environmentalist organizations are often filled with the same people. He knows that, prior to the existence of any formal “green party,” 68% of the activists and staff at the Society for the Protection of Nature voted for the leftist Meretz and Labor parties. Beside his condescension toward Arab non-environmentalists, he knows that environmental cooperation is the only way for enduring environmentalist policies to be developed, because nature knows no borders. This is why Alon Tal is the founder of the Arava Institute of Environmental Studies, or Machon Arava. It is through initiatives like Machon Arava, through the education of young people, that environmental cooperation can be made to be sustainable, and only if environmental cooperation is made to be truly sustainable, can it hope to lead to trust-building and peace talks. Tal believes in the beneficial social progress that comes out of disaster. If we talk about what went wrong in history, we can come up with a better plan for the future. As Rebecca, an Arava student with a familial background similar to my own said when I interviewed her a year after our semester together, “Environment is critical. You can’t just get people to talk about violence all the time; you need to have something for them to talk positively about, too, and work together for.”

A new company in Palestine, the Palestinian National Renewable Energy Company (PNREC), was established at the end of 2009 and is the first of its kind. Its mission statement is to reduce regional disparities, enhancing economic units in decline throughout Palestine, to analyze and monitor ongoing developmental projects according to environmental issues of the area, and, overall, to understand the world’s environmental problems in order to accomplish sustainable, environmentally-friendly development for Palestine. Its first project is to implement in Palestine new waste treatment technology patented by Soluciones Termicas Aplicadas (STA), a Spanish company. The PNREC is running environmental assessments, cost/benefit analysis, and hopes to help to establish these plants in the West Bank in the near future, and eventually Gaza. Although it is a business, not a non-profit or non-governmental organization, and although it does not directly involve any peace initiative, this first wholly “green” business, based in the West Bank, has Arava Institute alumni written in its over-arching philosophy: “There is no Planet B,” and it is no coincidence that their first project deals with the transboundary issue of water.

PNREC co-President Hazem Ziada was a student at Machon Arava in the fall of 2008, and learned there that “together we can make peace and … nature has no borders. We built a strong relationship despite our different races and cultures,” (Ziada, interview). Ziada already had a degree from the Miser University for Science and Technology in Egypt before coming to Machon Arava, but did not know or care much about the Earth. Known for giving the best hugs on campus and for wandering around the kibbutz wearing his kaffiyeh (getting many suspicious glances from the chaverim), Ziada was always clear that his main concern was for his people’s freedom. Not environmental justice, but complete justice. Now, he is the co-president of a business boasting to be Palestine’s first “Ecological and Profitable” (from PNREC Mission Statement, given me by Ziada) development analysis company.

Aside from the many environmentalist initiatives being implemented throughout the Israeli/Palestinian/Jordanian region coming from Machon Arava alumni, there are a few unaffiliated grassroots organizations in the area, some of which even work on cooperation and transboundary environmental problem solving. Israel has the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), which focuses on numerous environmental issues, including the degradation of the Sea of Galilee, and Adam Teva V’Din, which focuses on preventing sewage water from leaking into rivers and streams, among others. Israeli groups tend to use politics as their medium for change; they lobby and rally until new policies are enforced to provide a more environmentally friendly future, rather than implementing projects for immediate change. While their approach is ideally more sustainable than an immediate, direct-action approach to change, their plans often get caught in the thickets of Israeli bureaucracy, and take a long time to come to fruition.

The decline of the Dead Sea is visible from the view from atop Masada

The Red-Dead Conduit is a great example of a transboundary environmental plan being put into place, requiring cooperation from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the World Bank. It is also a great example of how these actions take a long time to come to fruition. In an effort to bring water and friendlier relations to Israel and Jordan, the Red-Dead conduit, a 110 mile canal and tunnel system to transfer water from the Red Sea to flow into the shrinking Dead Sea, has been in the planning and researching stage since 2005. Jordan, Israel, and the PA asked the “World Bank to oversee the implementation of a feasibility study and environmental and social assessment for the project in accordance with the Bank’s policies and guidelines” (Bank Information Center, The goals of the operation are to halt the degradation of the Dead Sea, both out of environmental responsibility and to continue the economic benefits that the Dead Sea affords Israel, and to allow Jordan and the Palestinian territories access to more water. The policy makers of all parties involved have agreed on the terms of this project, and it has the potential to be a great trust- building economic endeavor. Unfortunately, as of the summer of 2009, environmental scientists and Friends of the Earth Middle East were still skeptical of the environmental safety and feasibility of the project, and studies are not scheduled to be completed until the end of this year. After five years of researching and planning, how many more years the conduit would take to build is unknowable at this time. Although the idea of the Red-Dead Conduit was an inspiration for those invested in transboundary environmental cooperation, and as such is the subject of multiple MA theses at the Arava Institute, the length of time devoted to this project before results will even begin to be seen is unfortunate.

Organizations like the Palestine Hydrology Group (PHG) and the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC) were established solely for the most important environmental issue facing the Israeli/Palestinian societies: water. These non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not non-political organizations, and both affiliate with left-wing groups within the Palestinian political world. This sometimes causes tension with the Fatah-centered Palestinian Authority (PA), with whom the NGOs have to interact on a regular basis. Adding to the inner turmoil of the Palestinian pecking order for water services is the added tension of the PA and the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) having so little actual power over the water resources in the West Bank.

These NGOs, in conjunction with international groups, have tried to set effective protection guidelines for drinking water sources, particularly the Mountain Aquifer, the West Bank’s main source for total water consumption and the provider for one-third of Israel’s drinking water. However, as NGOs, they do not have the ability to dissuade Israel from its firm control of the West Bank and its consequent economic downslide, nor do they have the ability to persuade the PA that waste water treatment facilities and water conservation plans should be prioritized and are worth making compromises for. The PA, meanwhile, continues to mostly ignore these NGO’s and focus on big-picture issues of security and statehood with little apparent concern for the immediate suffering of their people.

Despite the difficulties, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), an Israeli/Jordanian/Palestinian chapter of Friends of the Earth International, has been able to implement and sustain the “Good Water Neighbors” project. The “Good Water Neighbors” project was established in 2001, and it works with neighboring communities in Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, teaching about water security and encouraging peace-building dialogue. The project’s work has ranged from teaching at local grade schools and developing low-tech water treatments all the way through lobbying to the highest levels of European Parliament and the United States House of Representatives. Its annual meeting was held five months ago (November 2009), wherein 25 mayors from the participating communities were split up by geographic region (Jordan Valley, the Mountain Aquifer, and the Dead Sea) to discuss the role of communities in sharing water resources and why it is important for the communities to work together.

[1] Occupation is, by legal definition, temporary; thus, civilian settlement in occupied territories is against the stipulations of The Hague and Geneva Conventions. However, the Hague Convention did allow for temporary military settlements in occupied territories for security reasons, which the Israeli government used to legitimate the early settlements.

No comments: