How Israel enables environmental terrorism in the West Bank
Israel’s bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip is dominating headlines across the world as the Palestinian death toll climbs still further.
Meanwhile, tensions in the West Bank, by far the largest of the occupied Palestinian territories and the usual centre of attention, continue to bubble in the background.
Israeli settlers in the West Bank, encouraged by the focus on Gaza and the spread of anti-Palestinian sentiment, have renewed attacks on Palestinians. The settlers’ latest campaign includes a rarely discussed tactic: environmental terrorism.
"No one wants to discuss the environment and peace in these conditions, ones in which their efforts can seem both futile and wildly out of sync with realities on the ground"
The journalists covering the West Bank’s ongoing uptick in violence tend to highlight its most eye-catching statistic: as of early November, armed settlers had driven about 1,000 Palestinians from their homes.
However, some of the subtler aspects of the incidents behind these expulsions—and the wider environmental themes uniting them—have received far less notice.
In one instance, settlers attacked Palestinian farmers picking olives, killing one. Settlers also displaced entire groups of Palestinian herders. And in the last few weeks, settlers have even destroyed Palestinian families’ solar panels, not only depriving Palestinians of electricity but also dealing a blow to the West Bank’s efforts to transition to renewable energy.
These episodes may seem like isolated cases of terror rather than a concerted campaign of environmental terrorism. And the settlers might not have set out with the specific, explicit goal of engaging in environmental vandalism.
Yet observers must view these recent incidents in the historical context of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. By preventing Palestinian farmers from using their land, settlers make Palestinians’ existence untenable and drive them from their homes. Once Palestinians leave their land, settlers can claim it for themselves.
The example of olives, one of Palestine’s most important food staples, speaks to the scale of the issue.
In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, citing estimates developed a year earlier by the Palestinian National Economy Ministry, reported that “more than 800,000 productive olive trees have been uprooted” since Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967, with 7,500 “destroyed” in the first nine months of 2011 alone.
The problem of environmental vandalism has only gotten worse since then. In a 2015 episode that Inter Press Service dubbed “environmental terrorism,” settlers chopped down 1,200 of Palestinian farmers’ olive trees.
Last year, Israeli soldiers in the West Bank removed another 2,000 olive trees while dousing others in pesticides. And settlers tore down 350 olive trees this January and vandalized 5,000 over the course of five months this year.
The focus on olives stems in part from an enduring connection to Palestine's identity. Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s late national poet, wrote about olives in the context of political violence. And a 2009 study by the Israeli-born ethnographer and environmentalist Irus Braverman described “the strong identification between the olive tree and the Palestinian people,” calling it “not only a reflection of the olive's unique economic and cultural status in this region but also an act of resistance to Israel's occupation.”
But attacks on olives also perform the more simple function of undermining Palestine’s economy and Palestinians’ claim to their land. About 100,000 Palestinians rely on farming olives, which account for a quarter of Palestine’s overall income from agriculture. The less Palestinians can farm, the less they can push back.
By directing attention to Gaza while overlooking the West Bank, the international community may be providing settlers with an opportunity to widen a campaign of environmental terrorism against Palestinian farmers.
At the same time, similar worries are coming to the fore in Gaza. Israel’s assault is preventing Gaza’s farmers from accessing 4,400 hectares of land dedicated to olives.
Israel’s bombardment is also worsening the territory’s intractable environmental issues, foremost among them water scarcity. The Jordan Times warned last month, “As Gaza carnage mounts, concerns spike over environmental war crimes.”
Yet the scale of the wider humanitarian crisis in Gaza will likely keep environmental issues there or environmental terrorism in the West Bank from becoming a major topic of conversation any time soon.
“No one wants to discuss the environment and peace in these conditions, ones in which their efforts can seem both futile and wildly out of sync with realities on the ground,” Peter Schwartzstein, a specialist in environmental peacebuilding, wrote for the Wilson Center last month.
“Even if they want to, many people are unable to meet. Israeli authorities quickly shut down the checkpoints that control access into and around the West Bank. Others still are unlikely to assess their generally pro-environmental cooperation views fairly.”
Schwartzstein argued that addressing Palestine’s environmental issues can only go so far without tackling the overarching geopolitical challenges of the Israeli occupation, a point that the Palestinian farmers who survived environmental terrorism know all too well.
“You can build new wastewater treatment facilities in Palestinian towns to the benefit of their inhabitants and Jewish communities alike,” wrote Schwartzstein, “but that does not negate the basic reality of an increasingly brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank.”