COP27: Is Israel's climate agenda 'greenwashing' its occupation of Palestinian land?

In-depth
8 min read
18 November, 2022
Israel's official pavilion at COP27 is replete with initiatives and high-tech solutions to fight climate change in the region. But one of the organisations chosen to represent its climate agenda caused a backlash due to links to illegal settlements.

For the first time ever, the Israeli state was present with its own pavilion at COP, the yearly world summit on climate action concluding this week in the Egyptian coastal city of Sharm-el-Sheikh. But one of the organisations Israel chose to represent its climate agenda caused immediate backlash and accusations of greenwashing due to its close links to the settlement and colonisation of Palestinian land and the cleansing of its native population.

Since its official opening on November 7, free coffee and welcoming signs in Arabic have greeted hundreds of visitors to the Israeli pavilion, where accredited COP27 participants can check interactive displays to learn about the country’s flagship green 'innovations' – like growing plants in high-tech indoor farms, making fake meat, and planting trees in the desert. 

The pavilion is located deep inside the Blue Zone, an exhibition area that contains hundreds of booths up for rent to official delegations, including NGOs and lobbies. Pavilions provide space to organize events on the sidelines of the climate summit and are a key communication asset for those who can afford them. The starting price of pavilion space has reached as high as 400 dollars per square meter at past COPs, without customisation. 

For the Israeli delegation to COP, it’s been a great public relations tool. Throughout the two weeks of the summit, the pavilion hosted around 40 side events showcasing the work of startups, environmental agencies and agritech companies. The goal: presenting Israel as a leader in climate change adaptation and fostering cooperation agreements and business deals with other countries in the region.

But this glossy picture is misleading and could amount to greenwashing, Palestinian organizations have warned, highlighting that some of the environmental initiatives promoted at the pavilion are directly linked to gross human rights abuses.

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The lack of climate justice


“Whether it is official from ministries, or civil society or entrepreneurs talking about climate-friendly solutions at these events, none of these speakers are highlighting how these advancements would not have been possible without the exploitation and appropriation of Palestinian natural resources,” Aseel Albajeh, a researcher and advocacy officer at Al-Haq, a Palestinian human rights organization, told The New Arab.

Like Albajeh, critics have repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of Israel’s claim for climate championship considering its obstructive and environmentally harmful policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Like other civil society organizations, Palestinian environmental groups operate in a restricted environment marked by heavy surveillance and legal harassment. In October 2021, the Israeli government designated six prominent Palestinian NGOs (including a major environmental NGO) as terror groups, effectively criminalizing their work. Independent investigations including by the CIA were unable to find a basis for the designation.

But it’s not just NGOs who are prevented from doing their work. Climate adaptation and mitigation efforts are also hindered, particularly in Gaza, where the ongoing Israeli blockade prevents most projects from even happening.

“We are a country under occupation, and there are a lot of restrictions put by the occupation on our ability to implement climate actions,” Nedal Katbeh-Bader, Climate Change Advisor at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Environmental Affairs, told The New Arab, denouncing “case by case” cooperation that routinely jeopardizes Palestine’s ability to implement climate change mitigation plans. “The Israelis have full control over our resources, including land, water, air, borders… We cannot implement anything on the ground without the consent of the Israeli occupation.” 

Like Albajeh, critics have repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of Israel’s claim for climate championship considering its obstructive and environmentally harmful policies in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Meanwhile, Israel has the means and resources to launch large infrastructure projects that largely exclude Palestinians or dispossess them further.

“One of the things that Israel is boasting about right now is how environmentally friendly the EuroAsia interconnector is,” Albajeh said. Funded by the European Union, the EuroAsia Interconnector aims to connect the electricity grids of Israel, Cyprus and Greece to create an “energy highway bridging Asia and Europe” giving EU countries access to electricity generated by Israeli and Cypriot gas reserves. It has also been presented as an environmental project because it facilitates the trade of electricity generated from renewable sources.

But, Albajeh recalled, “this project is very problematic for the Palestinian people because the Israel national electricity grid is connected to Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, and of course, these settlements were built in violation of international law.” 

In other words, while Palestinian villages continue to struggle with a failing electricity supply, Israeli settlements illegally founded on Palestinian territories will be connected to European electricity grids. “This entrenches the settlements enterprise and the ongoing annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories,” Albajeh said.

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Greenwashing human rights violations

Some of the environmental projects promoted at the Israeli pavilion have been directly linked to human rights violations and Israeli settlement activities. One of the guest stars of the pavilion is the Jewish National Fund (otherwise known as KKL-JNF), which recently implemented very controversial afforestation projects in the Negev desert.

Founded by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, the KKL-JNF is a nongovernmental organization financed by private donations, but it has a special mandate to manage all public forests in Israel, and owns 13% of land in the country. The group prides itself on planting more than 240 million trees over the past 120 years – more than 100,000 hectares of forest. It was established at the turn of the twentieth century with an openly Zionist mandate to buy land for Jewish settlements in Palestine. But it also seized swathes of land against the will of its owners as Palestinians fled the ethnic cleansing massacres that followed the creation of Israel. Two third of the KKL-JNF’s forests have been planted over the ruins of destroyed Arab villages, whose inhabitants were never compensated.

Today, the organization continues to implement heavily criticized projects with dubious environmental results. In January this year, protests erupted across the northern Negev (An-Naqab) desert against afforestation work done by the KKL-JNF on land historically claimed by local Arab Bedouin communities. United under the slogan “Save the Naqab” (the name of the Negev in Arabic), thousands of protesters rallied at planned afforestation sites and in various Palestinian cities. They were unable to prevent KKL bulldozers from digging up trenches, devastating the fields and uprooting fruit trees, all under heavy police protection. 

In recent years, the KKL-JNF has carried out dozens of similar projects in the Negev, targeting lands claimed by local Arab communities. The Negev is home to around 300,000 Palestinians, who obtained Israeli citizenship after the Nakba of 1948. Many live in “unrecognized” villages that are frequently demolished and deprived of all basic services, including roads and electricity. Planting forests has prevented locals from grazing and farming there, effectively pushing them off the land. 

The KKL-JNF’s afforestation projects are also contested by Israeli environmental organizations like the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPN). SPN research found that planting non-native pine trees in the desert was ecological nonsense, and that afforestation work in the Negev even threatened ecosystems of valuable arid transition zones lying between the Mediterranean north of Israel and its desertic south.

Despite this controversial record, the KKL-JNF was presented as a leader in forestry work and ecosystems restoration, and given an effective platform at COP27. Ironically, the KKL-JNF is even exploring the possibility to make money from its forests by selling them as “carbon credits” on international carbon markets, which are currently being developed under the Paris Agreement.

Green normalisation

In addition to advertising itself, one of the aims of Israel’s strengthened presence at COP is to export Israeli climate innovations to neighbouring countries. 

“Our dream is to be part of NEOM,” the leader of an Israeli agritech startup told The New Arab, referring to the carbon-neutral, high-tech Saudi city under construction on the shores of the Red Sea. His startup uses high-pressure hydroponics to grow vegetables in all-enclosed urban. “It’s complicated because Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have relations, but we really think it would be a perfect match.” 

Many at the Israeli pavilion came to Egypt with an eye on tech-hungry markets in the Gulf. Even the KKL-JNF doesn’t hide its ambition to work with Arab neighbors, including Jordan, Egypt and the Emirates. 

After signing the US-sponsored 2020 Abraham Accords and normalizing ties with neighbors that previously boycotted them – including Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates – Israeli leaders hope the region will open up to them for business, and the environment is a perfect entry point.

Regional cooperation in this field is not unprecedented, and in some cases environmental initiatives have united scientists around common research interests in migratory birds or endangered Red Sea corals, for example. The controversial 2021 “water-for-energy” deal between Jordan and Israel, in which Israelis provided water to a drought-stricken Jordan in exchange for solar electricity, was also widely viewed internationally as a positive development despite local opposition.

However, it was heavily criticized in Jordan, where many argued that Israel had no rights over the water it was selling considering it controls and diverts Palestinians’ share of riparian water resources. Even EcoPeace, the regional environmental organization who engineered the deal, recognized that the deal was incomplete and failed to serve Palestinians’ water and energy need. 

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Likewise, without climate justice for Palestinians and for Arab minorities at home, Israel’s strategy to use the environment as a springboard for political and economic cooperation with neighbors amounts to greenwashing – of its poor human rights record. 

Palestinian activists are not surprised. “There has always been a greenwashing strategy by Israel to promote itself as environmentally friendly, while it is at the same time committing war crimes and human rights violations against the Palestinian people,” Albajeh concluded. 

 

This story was produced as part of the 2022 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.