Sumud: Amidst Israel’s assaults on water supplies we must talk about Palestinian resistance, not resilience
During the hottest months of the year, Israel moved to seal Palestinian water wells with cement in Al-Hijrah. The region located in the south of Hebron was raided with bulldozers in late July to stop the irrigation of farmland that supplies 25 families who are not connected to the water grid. This is the latest in a recent series of assaults against Palestinian environmental livelihoods.
Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, reduced the water quota supplied to the West Bank earlier this month.
While the Eastern Mediterranean region is predicted to warm at a faster rate than the global average, the impacts of climate change will be felt asymmetrically between Palestinians and Israelis inhabiting the same terrain. Israelis enjoy the latest technological innovations including a new desalination project which pumps Mediterranean seawater into the Sea of Galilee, all while intensifying patterns of drought in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel controls all Palestinian water sources, as granted by the Oslo Accords in 1995, which were initially placed as a 5-year plan but are still in motion 28 years later.
''Resilience discourses fail to appropriately diagnose the climate crisis in Palestine, framing the environmental impacts of the occupation as apolitical “hazards” rather than structural injustices.''
A manufactured crisis
Water scarcity in Palestine is not simply a physical phenomenon, but a crisis manufactured by the Israeli state to control Palestinian society and industry. Assault on the natural environment has long been a tool employed by Israel in its ethnic cleansing, as reasserted by recently released historical documents which outline Israel’s reliance on the destruction of land and crops to drive Palestinians out of their homes.
Knowing this, Palestinian resistance and steadfastness on the land (sumud) has also prevailed throughout the history of the Zionist settler colonial enterprise.
Sumud is a Palestinian cultural concept that has been part of the collective Palestinian consciousness since the times of the British Mandate. The closest literal translation is “steadfastness” though it carries a cultural meaning of a strong determination to stay on the land. The concept was revived in the 60s by the Palestinian Liberation Organisations to describe the plight of the refugees and survivors of the Nakba. It was invoked again in the 80s to represent the efforts for self-sufficiency during the first Intifada, protecting Palestinians from collective economic punishment by Israel.
The practice emerges in everyday Palestinian life to build a system of continuity despite the ongoing occupation. It contains within it scope for strategic perseverance as well as practices of inclusive resistance. Sumud is therefore an ideal framework for understanding Palestinian responses to environmental oppression, including in Al-Hijrah.
Despite the consistent destruction and blocking of wells in Palestinian areas, communities continue to rebuild them to harvest water, while knowing that they will be demolished for the lack of a permit - which is near impossible to obtain. This continued strategic perseverance attempts to re-write the reality on the ground, marked by a refusal to accept or normalise Israeli environmental aggression in everyday life.
In response to Israeli-manufactured water scarcity, Palestinian farmers have adapted their farming practices to plant more trees which can grow by depending on rainwater, known as Ba’li (rainfed) cultivation. This nature-based solution reinforces agro-biodiversity and reduces the need for inorganic fertilisers and soil-disrupting tillage practices.
Holding onto ancestral practices of cultivating the land despite water shortage is both a means of survival and a form of resistance in the face of settler colonial erasure.
However, sumud is increasingly mistranslated as “resilience” particularly in the policy and NGO sectors. Resilience discourses fail to appropriately diagnose the climate crisis in Palestine, framing the environmental impacts of the occupation as apolitical “hazards” rather than structural injustices.
Environmental resilience theory and policies wrongly place the responsibility on the individual to “bounce back” after an assault, as the neoliberal subject is defined by their capacity to endure, rather than to transform the oppressive conditions around them.
Israel’s continuous assault on Palestinian life largely relies on the international community’s perception of Palestinians as a resilient people who are capable of surviving routine environmental violence. Instead, sumud offers an alternative perspective that inspires resistance as well as perseverance, demanding that Palestinians deserve more than just survival.
Only three days after the Israeli Offence Forces were filmed filling the well in Al-Hijrah with cement, settlers went on a rampage in the adjacent village of Burin torching Palestinian farms. In the face of heightened settler violence targeting both Palestinians and their land, apolitical environmental policies such as tree-planting and water conservation prove futile. Instead, sumud offers a justice-oriented, adaptive response to the climate crisis.
Israel not only creates the environmental struggles that Palestinians face through its polluting military and waste dumping practices, it compounds their effects through its occupation, and then criminalises the solutions and infrastructure necessary to address them. Therefore, surviving and adapting to environmental change has become part of a deliberate strategy that forms the foundation for proactive resistance against the occupation.
Resilience, even in its most radical iterations, fails to account for the resistance of communities as they seek to reorder the power relations driving their erasure. Looking beyond passive endurance, sumud is a Palestinian value that has emerged from grassroots cultural resistance and remains anti-colonial at its core after surviving many attempts at co-optation into institutionalised discourses.
Asmaa Ashraf is a Palestinian organiser and recent graduate of Ecology and Development. Her research interests focus on Palestinian environmental justice.
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