The No. 1 polluter in the occupied Palestinian territories is the very control Israel exercises over the land and the settlement enterprise. That isn’t a verbatim quote, but that’s the spirit of what Palestinian PM Mohammad Shtayyeh said at the COP26 environmental summit in Glasgow last week.

His presence barely won a mention in the global media, let alone in the Israeli media, further demonstrating how sidelined the Palestinian issue has become on the global agenda. But that doesn’t make the harm to the environment any the less.

Any number of studies and articles about the environmental conditions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank draw a connection to Israeli policy. These include a detailed UN paper from 2020 ,reports by Palestinian legal organization Al-Haq over the years, and an article published by the pan-Palestinian think-tank Al-Shabaka in 2019 (“Climate Change, the Occupation and a Vulnerable Palestine").

Yet it is difficult to quantify the total contribution to climate warming by the actions of the Israeli government and civilians in those territories conquered in 1967.

The state’s comptroller report on Israel’s failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t even mention the territories. Nor does it discuss the UN’s frightening projection made in 2012, that the Gaza Strip would become uninhabitable by 2020 if Israel doesn’t fundamentally change its policy toward this enclave. Almost two years have passed since the “deadline” that the UN gave, and nothing substantial has changed. The UN must have underestimated Gazans’ enormous aptitude for resilience.

Yet a key sentence in the Comptroller’s report sheds light on Israeli obliviousness of the occupation’s contribution to local and global pollution. It reads: “In a situation of conflict or potential of conflict between the main objectives of government ministries and the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the ministries prioritize the promotion of goals at the core of their ministerial purview over emission reduction – save at the Environmental Protection Ministry…”

As reflected in stated and implemented policy, the goals of Israeli governments – including the current one – are to expand the settlements, to entice more Israeli and diaspora Jews to settle in the West Bank, to ensure to maintain total control over some 60 percent of the West Bank (“Area C”), to perpetuate the split between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, to keep the Palestinian and Jewish populations separate, and to accustom the world to the reality of separate, disconnected Palestinian enclaves as a “solution.”

An undeclared derivative goal is systematic weakening of the Palestinian economy. All these goals have a price tag, in the form of sui generis environmental harm. Here are some examples.

Asphalt as far as the eye can see

Part of the damage the occupation is causing to the ecosystem boils down to superfluous, ideologically driven construction and road-building at the expense of open and green Palestinian spaces.

Building for Jews in the settlements is very expansive, both to enhance the attraction and to take over as much Palestinian land as possible.

In the spirit of keeping the two communities, Palestinians and settlers, separate, and cementing the de-facto annexation, Israel is creating a doubled road system. The overriding criterion for planning new roads is catering to the demands of settlers present and future, which means increasing their number and shortening travel times between the settlements and Israel. Palestinian vehicles are encouraged or forced to drive on secondary, parallel and bypass roads. Palestinians are barred from most of the roads connecting settlements to each other and to Israel, or the roads lead Palestinians to nowhere at all.

In addition, thousands of square meters in the West Bank are covered in asphalt serving no civilian purpose: “security roads” around the settlements, at the expense of Palestinian grazing and farming lands, and roads paved along the twisted separation barrier, exclusively for the use of military vehicles.

On top of this, trees are uprooted, farmland is ruined and access to farming land in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip is denied on the ostensible grounds of security, due to settler violence and for the sake of expanding the settlements and their infrastructure.

Jacking up emissions

Furthermore, the restrictions on movement and various prohibitions regarding development are adding to greenhouse gas emissions. The distances and driving times between Palestinian enclaves and between sub-enclaves – that is, from neighboring villages to their district metropolis – grow longer, due to permanent and transient checkpoints and areas Palestinians are prohibited from entering, such as the settlements and settlement blocs. Longer time behind the wheel means, more fuel consumption and more emissions.

Not only has there been a general increase in the number of cars on the road: traffic jams are being caused at checkpoints along the road and at city entrances. Vehicles crawling along in gridlock pollute more than continuous driving at cruising speed. A 2018 study by Palestinian applied research institute Arij found that 80 million liters (21 million gallons) of fuel are wasted in the West Bank each year due to snarl-ups at checkpoints, closing areas to Palestinian cars and the need to take bypass roads. This, the study estimated, results in 196,000 more tons of CO2 emissions per year.

The study also estimates that 60 million work-hours are lost per year, at a cost of $270 million dollars.

Israel controls all water resources throughout the country, but does not regard the Gaza Strip as a natural geographical part of it, which would mean it should have a share in the water resources, as Jewish communities in the desert do, for example. Therefore the Gaza Strip must make do with the bit of coastal aquifer within its artificial borders, which does not yield sufficient water for a population of two million human beings. After being over-pumped for 30 years, the aquifer has become contaminated by infiltration of salinity and wastewater. About 96 percent of its water is considered unsuitable for drinking and must be purified at special facilities. That purification consumes an immense amount of fuel each day, then the purified water is driven to homes – producing yet more emissions.

Connecting Gaza to Israel’s national water system (which uses huge quantities from West Bank resources) would have been fairer to both Palestinians and to the world climate.

In the West Bank, Israel rations the amounts of water the Palestinians may draw and use. Due to the small quantities the flow in the pipes is weak, and the water fails to reach many Palestinian neighborhoods and villages situated at relatively high altitudes. Yet again the solution is fuel-intensive: hauling water in tankers, which “feed” it into rooftop cisterns and water holes.

Israel also refuses to enable dozens of villages and shepherding communities, mostly in the Jordan Valley and the southern Hebron Hills, to connect to the water system. These poverty-stricken Palestinian communities have to depend on water hauled by truck and tractor, for which they pay five times as much if not more, and that’s before calculating the damage done to the ecology.

Neoliberal trends

Israel’s control confines the Palestinians’ powers and development options to isolated enclaves with no territorial contiguity.

The Palestinian Authority has and does encourage neoliberal trends that damage the environment, such as increased consumerism, including that of cars. But its subjugated and inferior status renders long-term thinking and planning difficult, including by elements who espouse environmentally responsible economic attitudes.

Reducing emissions requires the development of public transport unrelated to profit considerations. But, even if the Palestinian Authority wasn’t broke, a project like a train system between Palestinian cities is rendered impossible because of the breakup of the territory into isolated pockets, with no authority over the land beyond them. Improving existing public transport options such as buses and minibuses requires subsidizing private and municipal companies and raising the pay for drivers, factoring in the added expense of waiting at checkpoints and taking longer bypass routes; also more bus lines are needed, operating longer hours.

Solutions to reduce the perennial traffic jams by adding exits from the cities (and building public transport lanes in each district) range from limited to inoperable. This is due to the settlements and their expansion plans, the Civil Administration’s discriminatory planning rules, and the security apparatus' demand that the number of entrances and exits from Palestinian towns be as limited as possible.

Israel’s control over the land, the water resources and planning in more than 60 percent of the West Bank does not allow the PA to rationalize the water distribution: that is, to divert water by pipes from fertile areas (for example – Jericho) to others, such as Bethlehem.

Israeli control and planning prohibitions also make it harder for the PA to move “dirty” industrial zones from residential areas, and to expand city limits based on environmental considerations.

In addition, the Palestinian Authority is limited in its ability to develop public awareness to issues of immediate and long-term environmental protection, and is geographically constrained in its ability to enforce existing laws and regulations – for example in preventing the burial of Israeli e-waste and other sorts of garbage for money in Palestinian villages’ land.

The Authority’s chronic financial feebleness, its failure to make good on promises that the Oslo process would lead to the end of the occupation, and its reputation for corruption have reduced the public trust in it to a bare minimum. Public trust is essential when a government wants to raise awareness and formulate policy in any field, whether the sensitive but necessary issue of reducing birthrate, through reducing the use of chemical pesticides and the promotion of public transport use. The internal Palestinian division between Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas and Fatah, developed and deepened by Israel’s policy of isolating and disconnecting Gaza, also limits the development and implementation of long-term Palestinian environmental planning and thinking.