Palestinian activists seek climate justice under occupation
"People talk about climate a lot here," said Awdah Hathaleen, an activist from the West Bank. “They’re scared. When we hear there is a winter storm coming, we don’t sleep. When there is wind, our houses shake.”
Hathaleen told Al-Monitor that in recent years climate change has exacerbated the situation in the West Bank. “We get hotter summers and colder winters. Every year it gets worse and worse,” he added.
Hathaleen lives in Umm al-Khair, a Bedouin village in the south Hebron Hills that was established in 1948, with 160 people currently living there. The village lies next to Carmel, an Israeli settlement built in 1982, separated from Umm al-Khair by a fence. “A lot of houses here are tents because of the occupation and we are not allowed to fix them for winter,” Hathaleen said. Snow used to come every five years, he noted, but it is increasingly frequent and last time there was a big snowfall, eight tents collapsed.
Umm al-Khair is located in Area C, which is under Israeli control and represents about 60% of West Bank lands.
Asked whether Israel allows them to build houses, Hathaleen said, “If we do anything, they [Israeli authorities] will give us a stop working order or demolition order immediately.”
The hotter summers pose new threats for the village, too. “There is no water network allowed here,” he said. “We get seven hours a week to collect water.” Members of the community suffer increasingly from a lack of water and so does the environment around them, Hathaleen noted. “Trees don’t have enough water and they die. The village is attacked by the weather, we have no green.”
According to a paper published last year by Palestine’s Environment Quality Authority, Palestine can expect to be one degree Celcius hotter in five years, and up to 4 degrees hotter by 2090. The authority also estimates that rainfall could decrease by up to 90% by 2090.
“This will reflect negatively on all aspects of life in Palestine, including health, water, biodiversity, agriculture and energy,” Othman Sharkas, a geography professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah, told Al-Monitor. The authority’s report anticipates extreme water shortages, desertification and an increase in public health issues stemming from dehydration and cholera outbreaks.
“Despite the effects of climate change being broadly similar across the region, the Palestinians are more vulnerable, and this is directly to do with the political situation,” Zena Agha, a researcher at Al-Shabaka research center, told Al-Monitor. The Israeli occupation is the biggest nonenvironmental threat facing the Palestinians, and one that compounds the environmental situation, Agha said.
“Restrictions on the free movement of people and goods, the apartheid wall [the wall separating Israel from the West Bank], land grabs, settlement expansion and settler violence, and poor governance all threaten Palestinian food and water security, which increases climate change vulnerability,” she noted.
Agha pointed out the peculiar role of the Palestinian Authority (PA) — the governing body in the West Bank — in relation to climate change. “It has no sovereign jurisdiction over natural resources or large swathes of territory and wields no independent political will over how to mitigate climate risks,” she said. “Yet bizarrely, it is tasked with addressing climate change.”