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Climate Justice and Palestine: the New Intersectionality

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On February 9, 2016, the US Supreme Court in a troubling example of shortsighted hubris halted Obama’s latest climate change resolutions which had emerged from the December Paris Agreement on global warming, thus also threatening commitments made by other top polluters, India and China. While China has now surpassed the US as the number one polluter, the decades of fossil fuel use by the US stills makes us the largest contributor to the climate crisis. The decision to freeze the resolutions which sought to decrease greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants until legal challenges are resolved, threatens to imperil an already inadequate approach to climate change. The Paris Agreement included what advocates call “false solutions.” These involve technological fixes such as carbon markets, genetically modified seeds, and industrial agriculture. The Agreement also lacked a financial commitment to ameliorate the irreparable harm that has already been done or to support climate refugees in the future.

The repeated failures of international and governmental agencies to effectively deal with the disastrous changes that threaten the entire planet have sparked local indigenous and small farmer activism from Bolivia to Palestine. It is already clear that global warming will disproportionately affect the poorest of the poor who are the least able to cope and the least responsible for the rising temperatures. The activism and discourse around our warming planet is increasingly grounded in a deep understanding of the intimate relationship between food sovereignty, climate justice, and resource rights, as well as the critical role for small farmers, local solutions, and the centrality of human rights and transitional justice.

There is growing evidence that climate change and resource wars lead to major conflict. The Rwandan genocide was preceded by crop failure; the war in Sudan by drought. The Syrian disaster was triggered by one of the worst droughts in Middle East history, five years of crop failures and dead livestock that lead to 1.5 million desperate rural people flocking to the cities where they were met with water shortages and no work. This led to serious political unrest, massive repression by President Bassar al-Assad, and a desperate radicalization of the populace. Hunger and hopelessness are powerful motivators and now the country lies in shambles. Half the Syrian population is displaced, four million people are living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, most in heartbreaking poverty, and the European Union is facing a destabilizing refugee crisis that is provoking both the best altruism and the worst xenophobia that countries have to offer. As the US anxiously grapples with the Syrian refugee crisis, it is becoming more evident that we are all in this together.

So how does this relate to Palestine? Palestine is faced with a double challenge, global and local. Due to climate change, the average rainfall is decreasing and the Jordan River will soon run dry. The Gazan aquifer is so over-utilized and salinated, experts have been saying that there will be no drinkable water for 1.9 million people by 2016 which is, after all, now. These same people are also crippled by a crushing economic siege and an environment poisoned by toxic munitions. At the same time, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is characterized by water confiscation and contamination. The Israeli government refuses to allow Palestinians to drill wells or build dams and repeatedly destroys water and waste treatment infrastructure, massively uproots olive trees, and bulldozes farm lands, sometimes for settlements or the separation wall or bypass roads and sometimes, just because.

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Israel’s state owned water company, Mekorot, diverts 90% of the water in the West Bank aquifers to Israel and then brags about Israeli water innovation and independence. Israeli per capita water use is four to five times greater than Palestinians. Their access, which is controlled by Israel, is below the minimum standard set by the World Health Organization. Gazans have also endured repeated assaults to civilians and infrastructure and environmentally catastrophic attacks. They are thwarted by severe limitations on fishing as well as the contamination of the Mediterranean by untreated raw sewage due to the bombing of the treatment plants and the harsh restrictions on imports of reconstruction materials. There are increasing reports of hopeless, angry young men traumatized by repeated wars and the loss of a viable future, now turning from Hamas who has failed them to ISIL. Desperation breeds radicalization. Jewish settlements in the West Bank also include massive industrial zones that ignore Israeli environmental regulations, often dumping toxic waste into Palestinian farms and water sources. The industries also profit from poorly paid and poorly protected Palestinian workers.

Several years ago there was much talk from Netanyahu of an economic peace in Palestine. Just like a purely big business, economic focus will not successfully address climate change, a strengthening of markets and investment will not bring tranquility to Palestine. The much trumpeted economic development of the West Bank goes nowhere without addressing the brutal facts of occupation.

Palestinians understand this. The Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) talks of their defense of land and water for Palestinian farmers as partly resistance to Israeli occupation and partly fighting climate change. They help farmers rebuild after Israeli attacks, build gray water infrastructure, cisterns for irrigation, and hydroponic sprouting units, and have developed the most far reaching seed bank in the region. The seed banks preserve the local seed biodiversity and the independence and steadfastness of the farmers; this is a struggle for food sovereignty as well as a resistance economy. As Abu Saif from UAWC states, “There’s no national sovereignty without seed sovereignty.”[i] Local seed banks challenge the powerful seed companies that rely on a system of genetically modified and hybridized seeds that is grounded in industrial practices based on petroleum.

In addition the UAWC supports women’s empowerment and indigenous human rights with their focus on sustainable agriculture through locally based agroecology, challenging the impact of occupation and the racist policies that privilege the Jewish settler with a green lawn and swimming pool over the thirsty Palestinian living in the valley below. At the same time the focus on small farmers and local markets reduces global greenhouse emissions and more reliably meets the food needs of the population. Hiba Al-Jibeihi of UAWC notes, “We all as humans fight for food sovereignty, climate justice and gender justice…Climate change’s effects on Palestinians are double because the Israeli occupation takes our resources, including land and water. Climate justice means resource rights, land justice, gender justice, food sovereignty and peace.”[ii]

It is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the steady rise of temperatures, sea levels, and the fierce and wild weather changes that are becoming common place as climate change deniers, global corporations, and national governments block any meaningful progress towards stopping global warming and fossil fuel based economies. But there is clearly much to be done on the local as well as international levels and the climate changes are becoming harder and harder to deny. Likewise, when it comes to Palestine, there is growing awareness of the evils of the occupation, the horrors of each Gaza invasion, and the interconnections between the mushrooming settler movement, the use of water as a weapon to subdue and control the Palestinian population, and the importance of local solutions as well as international support.

In the US, groups like Grassroots International, an organization mobilizing resources from progressive US donors, look to the climate justice movement in Palestine as a source of information and inspiration. “They are advancing a powerful vision of climate justice, by developing sustainable livelihoods, protecting the environment and fighting against the Israeli occupation, all at the same time.  As the just transition movement grows in the US, calling for a transition from the extractive, exploitative economy to resilient, thriving communities, stronger solidarity with Palestine’s climate justice movement will be key to achieving that vision.”[iii]  Activists are also drawing links between the growing boycott, divestment, sanction movement against Israel and the call for divestment from fossil fuels and the industries that extract and deliver them.

Perhaps we should take heart that boycotting products made in the Israeli settlements, challenging the massive Israeli blue and green washing propaganda machine, and supporting activists replanting olive saplings on the ancient terraces where they have been uprooted, not only supports the struggle against Israeli occupation. This activism also contributes to climate justice and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the most local and intimate level.

Notes.

[i] http://www.grassrootsonline.org/news/articles/planting-seeds-sovereignty-palestine

[ii] http://www.grassrootsonline.org/news/blog/road-climate-justice-goes-through-palestine

[iii] Personal communication, Chung-Wha Hong, executive director, Grassroots International

Alice Rothchild is a physician, author, and filmmaker who has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict since 1997.  She practiced ob-gyn for almost 40 years. Until her recent retirement she served as Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Harvard Medical School. She writes and lectures widely, is the author of Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience, and On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion. She directed a documentary film, Voices Across the Divide and is active in Jewish Voice for Peace.

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