'The House Is Burning': Palestinian Activists Pick Up the Climate Justice Gauntlet

In the last year left-wing activists and Palestinian groups have rebranded themselves and taken center stage in the debate surrounding the global climate crisis

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Pro-Palestinian and climate change activists chained to one another during a protest against Israeli construction plans that would affect a unique West Bank ecosystem, November 22, 2020.
Pro-Palestinian and climate-change activists chained to one another during a protest against Israeli plans for construction in a West Bank ecosystem, last November.Credit: Meged Gozani
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

A lot of water has flowed in the sea near the Gaza Strip since Edward Said described environmentalism as "the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause."

During the recent round of fighting against Hamas in the Strip, there may not have been an official change in America’s unconditional support for Israel, but on the ground – whether in Sidney, Baghdad or Madrid – a big change was felt. Indeed, tens of thousands of protesters stopped posting things on social media and flooded city streets with the colors of the Palestinian flag.

There was even a huge demonstration that greeted President Joe Biden, who had come to tour a Ford factory in Michigan, in protest over U.S. budgetary aid, arms deals and its longtime bromance with Israel.

Even some of our friends, the Hollywood celebs – all the Seth Rogens and Sarah Silvermans, who in the past rushed to sign petitions of support for the Jewish state – moved over to the other side. Instead, we got angry monologues against Israel from late-night talk-show hosts, critical posts on social media from rock stars and petitions initiated by workers at Google and Amazon. One can only imagine the migraine actress Gal Gadot’s poor agent had to deal with.

Everyone here is busy with fighting over the land. But in soon we won’t have land to fight over.

Muna Shaheen

Veteran pro-Palestinian activists say that this time around something different was in the air. This number of supporters who aren't usually part of their immediate coalition had never joined the activists before: i.e., thousands who are not necessarily Arabs or Muslims, and young progressives, including many American Jews too, who have been influenced in recent years by the movements for Black, women’s and indigenous communities’ rights.

These young people already know how to identify systematic oppression with their eyes closed, to diagnose social injustice with their hands tied behind their backs, and to declaim the principles of identity politics in their sleep. As a former Israeli who lives in New York explained to me: “Either you are in favor of climate justice, justice for George Floyd and the liberation of Palestine – or you’re against. It’s like a package deal; all the struggles are connected to each other.”

This sentiment is also reflected in a survey conducted by Gallup and released at the end of March, which showed that many more Americans feel sympathy for the Palestinians than in previous years.

When you recognize this point of departure, it's easy to understand why, during the latest round of hostilities in Gaza in May, environmental organizations all over the world voiced support for the Palestinian cause. For hundreds of thousands of young environmental activists around the globe, the climate crisis has for some time been not just a matter for scientists and tree huggers: It is a struggle over justice; over the fundamental shifts in social structures that have enabled the crisis; over social equality and distributive justice; and over control of natural resources.

Supporters of the Palestinians rally during the National March for Palestine demonstration in Washington at the end of May 2021. Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Hurting the weakest links

One of the central messages of the global climate movement is: “Change the system – not the climate.” Anyone who calls for environmental justice understands that those who are going to be harmed more than anyone else from the crisis are the weakest links in society – the minorities, the excluded populations and the poor.

This applies both to the global level – for example, the peoples of the South will pay the price for the excessive greenhouse gas emissions of the peoples of the North – and to the local level: Within a given city, it easy to see that those who suffer more from pollution and global warming are the poor and non-white communities.

This is the reason that environmental movements in Scotland, Canada, Britain and Spain wrote posts recently in which they stressed that “climate justice means justice for all," adding, "We stand in solidarity with Palestinians in their struggle against Israel's regime of occupation and apartheid” – and encouraging hundreds of thousands of their followers on social media to join the struggle for Palestine.

This is also why the Sunrise Movement, a prominent movement of young American environmental activists, signed a joint declaration with 140 other groups that called on the Biden administration to condemn Israel’s plans to forcibly evict Palestinians from their homes, and also tweeted a powerful clip. Their message: No matter how many olive trees the occupiers torch or homes they demolish, no matter how many billions of dollars they pour into attempting to erase and demonize us – our voices will always ring out in support of the rising tide of oppressed people.

Even Greta Thunberg – the "queen mother" of the global struggle against climate change, despite the fact that she's just 18 – was attacked when she posted a bland tweet saying she is “against any form of violence or oppression from anyone or any part.” There were those who accused her of having double standards: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Syed Saddiq, a 29-year-old Malaysian politician and well-known environmental activist, wrote in response. “You preach for climate justice but turn a blind eye when Palestinians are killed indiscriminately,” he tweeted – and received thousands of likes and retweets.

In recent years, activists and pro-Palestinian organizations have learned to adopt progressive terminology, rebrand their old struggle and draw a line between popular issues like climate justice and racial justice – and the Palestinian struggle. In this way an Instagram post from the U.S-based Adalah Justice Project declaring that “Biden’s spending plan for 2022 would give $1.3 billion more to the Israeli military than to international climate change programs,” went viral in late May.

Pro-Palestinian protesters during a visit by President Joe Biden at a Ford plant in Michigan, in May. It’s like a package deal; all the struggles are connected to each other," says one former Israeli.Credit: Carlos Osorio/AP

For its part, the left-wing Jewish American organization Jewish Voice for Peace tweeted: “Israeli colonialism is complicit in the destruction of natural ecological systems and a major contributor to climate change. More importantly, projects like this are yet another strategy to violently dispossess and displace Palestinians from their land.”

In a recent article in the London Review of Books, from which the above-mentioned quote from Prof. Said was taken, Canadian activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein also comments on the issue of environmental justice: “The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos,” she writes.

In this context, the critic of Jewish American culture goes on to argue that tree planting is one of the most important weapons of the Jewish takeover of Palestinian lands: “And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads.

"It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green,’ boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region.”

New buzz words

Even the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel has painted itself green, and has begun framing the Palestinian struggle as one with an environmental dimension – and is using the appropriate buzz words. In February, the movement tweeted: “97% of drinking water in the besieged Gaza Strip is unfit for human consumption. Since 1967, Israel has uprooted 800,00 olive trees. Palestine is a climate justice issue - Israeli apartheid is not ‘green.’”

On the BDS movement's website, the Palestinian struggle is also linked to the fights of other indigenous communities in North America who are on the front lines of the global climate movement. “The catastrophic climate crisis is fueled by global inequality and engineered by complicit governments and corporations that put profit before people and planet,” BDS added.

Because Israel trails behind global discourse in everything concerning climate by at least a decade, it is not surprising that local environmental groups do not mention a single word about climate justice – a term that stresses the ethical and political aspects of the global crisis, not just the environmental or physical ones.

To date, the only environmental group that's actively fighting for climate justice in Israel is One Climate, a joint movement of Jews and Arabs who work “to advance climate justice between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, [and to] stop the harsh effects of the climate crisis in our region and the violation of human rights caused to the indigenous populations as a result of climate and environmental injustice.”

One Climate was founded a little over a year ago by Mor Gilboa, the former executive director of the Israeli grass-roots environmental organization Green Course.

Muna Shaheen, a member of the Jewish-Arab environmental movement One Climate. "‘It’s clear the Middle East is going to be a catastrophe," she says.Credit: Gal Mosenson

“In Israel, most people don’t want to politicize the climate movement, they're afraid it will be too ‘leftist’,” says One Climate member Muna Shaheen.

"But as far as we’re concerned, the climate issue is a political issue, period. After all, it’s clear the Middle East is going to be a catastrophe, we are going to suffer. There is a clear separation between how things are being run in Israel and how they are being handled in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel’s attitude toward the West Bank is like a garbage bin. It’s completely ignoring that we all share the same sky, air and land. It’s simply stupid,” she adds.

Shaheen speaks about the burning of electronic waste, for example – which is banned in Israel but quite accepted in the West Bank and Gaza. Various toxins that are emitted by the smoldering metallic substances evaporate into the air, which makes air pollution worse for the residents of both the Strip and the nearby Israeli communities on the other side of the border. The toxins also trickle into the groundwater, which everyone shares.

“These are things that if they would happen inside Israel’s borders, people would [turn to violence],” says Shaheen.

Activists from the Jewish-Arab One Climate movement demonstrating against Israel's development of natural areas in the West Bank, in November.Credit: Courtesy One Climate

Last November, dozens of activists from One Climate blocked the access road to the Nahal Raba quarry in the West Bank – an industrial park that covers about 2,700 dunams (675 acres) – in protest of the advancement of extensive construction plans in the area, which has a unique ecological system. The activists chained themselves to one another and blocked the access road, so the trucks could not reach the quarry. They declared that the real purpose of the quarry was to strengthen Jewish territorial continuity in the West Bank and to prevent the development of Palestinian villages.

Regrettably, the protest has not helped much. Haaretz’s environmental correspondent Zafrir Rinat has reported that Israel's Civil Administration is vigorously promoting the scheme, which is named Sha’ar Shomron, and it is expected to severely damage one of the most important centers for preservation of natural flora and fauna and the landscape, in the swath of land that links the mountains of the West Bank and Israel's coastal plain.

“This is both ecological and political damage,” said Shaheen, of One Climate. “It is a classic example of the manner in which, in the name of politics, everything located on the land is eliminated.”

Outrageous injustice

There is no lack of additional examples of the outrageous climate injustice that characterizes Israel and the occupied territories: In February 2019, the Civil Administration cut off the water supply to 12 Palestinian villages in the Southern Hebron Hills, to which they had been given access just a few months previously. Before that, the communities living there got their water from tankers. By comparison, Jewish settler outposts in the area (which are unauthorized) – among them Havat Maon, Havat Avigail and Havat Yair – are connected directly to the Mekorot water company's supply.

The house is burning and people are fighting over who will enter it first. Wake up, God damn it!

Muna Shaheen

For a number of years, the Gaza Strip has suffered from a severe shortage of potable water, in addition to grappling with ecological hazards involving waste and sewage. Because of a lack of proper infrastructure, every day some 100,000 cubic meters of sewage from Gaza seeps into the environment – including the Mediterranean Sea – trickling down into the earth and exacerbating pollution of the groundwater, which we all drink from. Population growth and the drop in precipitation, expected as part of climate change processes, will just make this situation worse.

In previous rounds of fighting between Israel and Hamas, there was major damage to the electricity infrastructure in Gaza, which is essential for powering water-supply facilities and sewage treatment plants. How can a large desalination plant be built in the Strip if Israel bombs it every few years? The United Nations has been warning since in 2018 that the pollution by sewage in Gaza could well lead to outbreaks of disease in Israel too – but of course, this is also not a burning issue for Palestinian governmental authorities.

“For now, in Palestinian society the burning issue is politics, because we are in a state of survival,” says activist Shaheen. “Moreover, Zionism has after all severed the Palestinians from their lands, from their connection to nature. My grandmother would see eucalyptus and pine trees, and tell me: ‘The Israelis did this.’ It’s no surprise that the Palestinians are cut off from the land. The only times Palestinians deal with nature are when they build parks and towns to separate themselves, and then people come and complain that the Palestinians are not ecological – so, what do you expect?”

“Everyone here is busy with fighting over the land,” she concludes. “But in another minute, we won’t have land to fight over. It’s insane, in my opinion. The house is burning and people are fighting over who will enter it first. Wake up, God damn it!”

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