Opinion |

The Gaza Strip: An Israeli Crisis, Not a Climate Crisis

Dotan Halevy
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File: a Palestinian boy fills a donkey-pulled cart with recyclable waste and other items he collected, in hope to be able to sell them, at a garbage dump in Rafah, southern Gaza.
File: a Palestinian boy fills a donkey-pulled cart with recyclable waste and other items he collected, in hope to be able to sell them, at a garbage dump in Rafah, southern Gaza.Credit: AFP
Dotan Halevy

The Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv recently published an alarming report warning of the dire consequences for the Gaza Strip as a result of the climate crisis. The report, also published by Ynet, raises troubling information about the miserable circumstances of Gaza’s civilian Palestinian population, and suggests a number of possible measures to halt the deterioration.

This is indeed a critical issue. Climate change is hitting the Middle East at a fast pace, and it demands urgent consideration and action. However, the INSS seems to regard the humanitarian situation in Gaza as a given, caused by a “combination of factors,” the conflict with Israel among them. This is a mistaken view, which knowingly obscures the fact that the central reason why the residents of Gaza are significantly more exposed to the effects of the climate crisis is the Israeli blockade.

Pushing the civilian population in Gaza to the brink of a humanitarian disaster is a deliberate and almost stated aim of Israeli policy towards Gaza. Therefore, regardless of whatever creative measures are taken to ease the water or energy crises in the Strip, the Israeli government must first decide that isolating Gaza from the West Bank and Israel is an immoral and ineffective and must be stopped.

Autarkic resource-based economies no longer exist in the world we live in. Yet the blockade on Gaza expects a territory of 2.1 million people to subsist on desalinated water pumped primarily from its own territory. The poor water quality in Gaza is presented in Israeli discourse as the result of “excessive extraction” from the local aquifer. All this despite the fact that there isn’t a single region in Israel, or around the world really, that is forced to provide water for millions of people through this method.

The INSS states that Gaza’s electricity supply is restricted due to a lack of cash and fuel, but what it doesn’t say is that Israel often uses punitive collective measures against the local population and prevents the entrance of fuel, even when funding sources are available. But even if fuel was abundant, the infrastructure and plants available to distribute energy are for the most part still dysfunctional due to recent Israeli bombardment.

Israel is delaying the entry of thousands of items required for the smooth functioning of the water and electricity systems, and this risks their continued operation. According to the organization Gisha, water and electricity installations in Gaza are in need of thousands of spare parts. The INSS agrees that the restrictions on entry of parts that Israel classifies as “dual purpose” – materials necessary for construction and development but that may also serve military purposes – undermine any attempt to rebuild the electricity grid.

In short, Israel is knowingly condemning the residents of Gaza to freezing winters and boiling summers (imagine an August night on the Israeli coastal plain without an air conditioner or fan), restricting water pumping and sewerage drainage, and limiting all essential services, including medical ones, to only a few hours a day.

The report, somewhat approvingly, states that Gaza’s electricity supply is becoming more and more reliant on solar panels. The INSS sees this as an opportunity to encourage reliance on renewable energy. How cynical of them. Maybe following the model of the water supply, Gaza’s electricity system will be limited to exploiting only the rays of sunlight shining in between the border fences.

We could discuss many other examples: Should we worry about the rise of Co2 concentration in Mediterranean waters and the decline in available fish for consumption in Gaza as a result of the climate crisis? Either way, Israel expands and limits Gaza’s fishing zones as it sees fit and purposely prevents Gazan fishermen from making a living from their only directly accessible natural resource. Even discussion about the decline in the amount of rainfall can wait. First of all, Israeli crop dusters should stop using pesticides to decimate the grassy areas around the border areas (“clearing the terrain”) and damaging Gaza’s agricultural areas near the perimeter fence.

The Gaza Strip is not especially exposed to the ravages of climate change because of its geographic location or climate. It is not a climatically unique and autonomous region, but rather a political enclave hemmed inside artificial borders. Gaza has been isolated from its agricultural expanses and catchment areas that provided it with water since 1949 in the cease-fire agreements with Egypt. After 1967, it was shaped by Israel as a reservoir of cheap labor and a captive market for Israeli goods, and since 2007 it has been under an Israeli military blockade that has turned it into what many consider to be the “largest open-air prison in the world.” The dire humanitarian situation in Gaza today is a feature of Israeli policy, not a bug. With or without the climate crisis.

If we wanted to draw a connection between the situation in Gaza and the climate crisis, it would be more precise to think of it as a window onto the nightmarish scenario of a world plunged into rivalry over resources, and the creation of environmental enclaves for undesirable populations. The Gaza Strip is in essence a forgotten aquarium, for which an all-powerful external force determines the amount of food and resources that will enter, when they will enter, and under what circumstances. If this external power wishes, the subsistence level will drop to the point of risking survival (a humanitarian disaster), and if it wishes, welfare will be provided.

At a time of worsening environmental conditions, it isn’t out of the question to fear that powerful countries will adopt the Gaza Aquarium model, imprison enemy populations, restrict their access to water and energy and feed or starve them as they see fit. All this of course out of national security considerations and the right of sovereign states to protect themselves. The resulting misery, hunger and despair can be explained, conveniently, as a result of global warming.

Many claim that Israel has an important role to play in implementing global reforms towards clean energy transition and sustainable economies. Not because Israel is a major polluter of carbon dioxide, but because its technological capacity and geopolitical significance can make it a model and source of solutions for other countries. We can only hope that the model others choose to implement is not the one Israel adopted for the Gaza Strip.

It is right and good to seriously consider our preparedness for the nightmarish scenarios that may occur because of the climate crisis. But it is even more critical that this debate not obscure the fact that the reasons why certain populations are more exposed than others are overtly political.

The solutions for the crisis in Gaza won’t be found in creative methods to avoid this issue while maintaining Gaza’s isolation from the rest of the world, but by reconnecting it to its geographic and economic surroundings. First of all, by opening the checkpoints to the regular flow of goods and people, and then connecting the Strip to Israel’s power and water networks. It is worth mentioning that due to Israel’s considerable control of Palestinian territory, it is required by international law and morality to provide for the civilian population under its control.

Whether Israel likes it or not, 40 years of occupation de facto and an additional 15 years of military blockade in Gaza come with responsibility. The damage caused in this period, and that is continuing, cannot be blamed on the climate crisis any longer.

Dotan Halevy is a post-doctoral fellow at the Polonsky Academy, The Van-Leer Institute.

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