From heat waves to ‘eco-apartheid’: Climate change in Israel-Palestine
July 2019 was, according to European climate researchers, the hottest month ever recorded. Coming just one year after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its landmark report warning of an impending climate catastrophe, temperatures soared to unprecedented levels in places like Alaska and Sweden, forests incinerated in Siberia, glaciers melted in Greenland, and entire cities in India went without water.
Faced with rising temperatures, addressing climate breakdown and its effects on humanity has become a key issue for governments, politicians, and movements for social justice around the world. Israel-Palestine, located in one of the hottest regions of the globe, is expected to warm at an even faster pace.
Polling among Israelis shows a great deal of indifference to the coming crisis, which means the Israeli government is facing little popular pressure on the issue. No equivalent research has been done in the occupied Palestinian territories but the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and siege on Gaza at once compound the risk of climate catastrophe for Palestinians, and make it virtually impossible for their government to do anything about it.
Late last year, a group of Israeli researchers published the first detailed forecast of what climate change could mean for Israel-Palestine. The results were frightening: relative to the benchmark period of 1981–2010, the 30-year period beginning in 2041 is expected to see average temperatures rise up to 2.5 degrees Celsius, and a drop in precipitation of up to 40 percent in non-arid parts of the country.
According to one of the researchers, professor Hadas Saaroni of Tel Aviv University, the heat and humidity Israelis and Palestinians living along the coast experience during the summer months will only grow more extreme. We already have almost 24 hours of heat stress in the summertime, she says, but it tends to lessen in the evening and nighttime hours. “That will get worse: the heat stress will be heavy in the daytime and won’t let up at night.” And like nearly everything related to climate change, the heat won’t be equally distributed. Recent research by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality predicts that temperatures in the poorer south of the city will be up to seven degrees Celsius higher than in its affluent north.
While Saaroni is surprisingly sanguine about the effects of climate change on sea level rise (“the sea will rise by about one meter, but only by the end of the century. With technology we have time to adjust.”), she and other Israeli climate scientists are increasingly worried about the creeping desertification of the country. Higher temperatures and less rainfall mean that the desert, which already covers most of the country, will creep steadily north, says ecologist professor Marcelo Sternberg, also of Tel Aviv University.
Yet without further research it is difficult to say just how far desertification will proceed. “Some research, including my own, shows that our territory is resilient to changes in rainfall within the natural range of variation,” says Sternberg. “But climate change means temperatures outside that range — and we just don’t know what that will mean.” What seems certain is that wildfires, which have increasingly afflicted the country in recent years, will continue to ravage the country during the summers.
Struggling against ‘climate apartheid’
The State of Palestine is signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. But due to Israel’s military rule over the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip, Palestinians have almost no control over their own natural resources, are unable to fully implement treaties or take on national projects, and cannot make concrete plans to adapt to climate breakdown.
In the West Bank, the water supply is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to a 2013 report by Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, Israeli per capita consumption of water for domestic use is four to five times higher than that of the Palestinian population of the occupied territories. Israeli settlers in the West Bank consume approximately six times the amount of water used by the Palestinian population living in the same territory.
Some Palestinian communities, particularly those living in areas of the West Bank under full Israeli military control, are not connected to any water infrastructure and must travel for miles to purchase water, which is often expensive and of dubious quality. Meanwhile, the Israeli army makes it nearly impossible to approve new water cisterns, and those built without permits are routinely destroyed by the authorities.
According to Al-Haq, the water sector in the occupied territories and Israel is characterized by highly asymmetrical overexploitation of shared water resources, exhaustion of long-term storage, deterioration of water quality, and increasing levels of demand driven by high population growth. Meanwhile, the area is seeing a per capita decrease in water supply — a burden that is disproportionately borne by the Palestinian population.
Dr. Abdulrahman Tamimi, the general director of Palestinian Hydrology Group, says that while Israel has the technological ability to adapt its agricultural sector to the changes in climate, agriculture will become impracticable in the West Bank within a decade. The situation in Gaza is compounded by Israel’s siege, which among other things has led to overexploitation of groundwater resources increasingly depleting the Coastal Aquifer, all of which has rendered 90 percent of the water supply unfit for human consumption.
“There is no hope for Gaza in any aspect as long as the political situation there remains unresolved,” Tamimi argues. He says he believes that within the next five or six years Gaza’s agriculture, water infrastructure, and economy will be dysfunctional. Solutions such as desalination, which would allow for both healthy drinking water and regular irrigation, are luxuries people in Gaza simply cannot afford, Tamimi explains: “Who would pay $1.5 per cubic meter?”
“Water is already such a scarce resource in the region,” says Zena Agha, the U.S. Policy Fellow with Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka, who focuses on the intersection of climate and Israeli occupation, “climate change simply acts as a threat multiplier.”
Agha says that on paper, an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal should have been able to solve the water crisis in the West Bank. Instead, the Oslo Accords, a set of interim agreements that were supposed to have led to a final status agreement over two decades ago, have only exacerbated it. As a result, 80 percent of the water sources in the occupied territories are under Israeli control. Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers regularly destroy small-scale, traditional water collection systems used by Palestinians in areas of the West Bank left under full Israeli military control by Oslo.
“You start to see a formal policy of water and resource theft, buttressed and scaffolded by a swath of laws and policies and licenses and permits and court hearings that are used to steal Palestinian water,” Agha says. “On the other hand, there’s also this sort of realist approach, which involves the IDF turning up, declaring a closed military zone and directly stealing the resources. This is the active policy by the Israeli state.”
Agha says that Israel’s policies in the West Bank amount to “climate apartheid.”