EcoPeace Middle East and the Fight to avert Climate Catastrophe

Misha Linnehan
on August 13, 2021
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Over the next few decades, every nation across the globe will face one common threat: climate change. As devastating climate-fueled fires continue to rage across Europe and the United States, a recently released UN report describes the current situation as a “code red for humanity.”

Desert or mountains, coastal or landlocked, urban or rural, every single country will have to confront the effects of the global rise in temperature, from rising sea levels to more frequent extreme weather events to a potential worldwide surge in migration.

Israelis and Palestinians will not be spared — and the profound changes may have a significant impact on the conflict itself, and more broadly across the region.

Scientists predict the Middle East will face some of the most dramatic changes on the planet, with anticipated increases in regional temperature more than double that of the forecasted increase worldwide. Rainfall may decrease by as much as 40%, making competition for arable land and drinking water increasingly desperate.

Heatwaves, already a significant problem in the region, may make it nearly impossible to work outside. Rising sea levels will encroach land on the region’s densely populated coasts, while extreme weather events will increase in frequency and severity all around the region.

EcoPeace Middle East — a collection of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists — say that in a region where extreme heat and water scarcity is already wreaking havoc, climate change could push the situation toward catastrophe.

“The outlook for the whole region is bleak,” Nada Majdalani, EcoPeace’s Palestine Director, tells J Street. “There’s no question that occupied Palestinian territory is particularly at risk for climate catastrophe.”

The South Hebron Hills and the Jordan Valley have been identified as two of the highest climate risk areas in the region, in large part due to the potential for massive swaths of Palestinian farmland to all but disappear.

In Gaza, one of the most densely populated coastal areas on the planet, the combination of overpopulation and rising sea levels has already facilitated a significant water shortage. As water levels continue to rise and rainfall decreases, that will only get worse.

Climate Change and the Occupation

The risk is heightened by the unstable politics of the region, particularly when it comes to Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territory. Access to resources and the ability to prepare for rising seas and more unpredictable weather events is already hampered by corruption and violence in Gaza, in addition to Israel’s restrictions on urgently needed supplies.

“Most countries staring at the reality of the coming climate disaster at least have the option of a large-scale mobilization to stop it,” said Majdalani. “In occupied Palestinian territory, where the governing authorities are heavily restricted in what they can pursue and most citizens don’t have a voice in government, taking on such an ambitious project would be nearly impossible.”

“Palestinians hoping to avoid the brunt of the climate crisis are mostly at the whim of the Israeli government,” she says. “So far, the results are not promising.”

The most significant threat that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza face as a result of climate change is the exacerbation of an already dire water shortage.

In the West Bank, many Palestinians already live in communities that are not connected to water infrastructure and are often barred from building any by Israeli authorities that seek to keep the land “clean” for potential Israeli settlements. Every year, Israeli authorities demolish hundreds of structures in the West Bank, including homes, schools, water infrastructure, solar panels and agricultural developments.

In Gaza, the situation is even worse.

The combination of overpopulation and the blockade enforced on by the Israeli and Egyptian governments has made water access a “daily struggle” for Gazans, according to UNICEF. Due in part to an unfair water allocation agreement with Israel, Palestinian water sources have been overdrawn for years, a process that has rendered most of the water that is actually available undrinkable.

Climate Change as a Security Risk

In both the West Bank and Gaza, climate change will inevitably make water even more difficult to access, as rainfall decreases and extreme weather events wreak havoc on the existing water infrastructure.

Slowly but surely, the occupied territories are likely to become regions in which millions of people are living not only without civil and political rights — but without access to clean drinking water, without access to arable land and without access to the means to adapt to harsh new climate realities.

Not only does that spell humanitarian disaster, but it will likely develop into a significant security risk for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Already, the lack of access to water in the West Bank and Gaza is a significant cause for protest by Palestinians against both Israel and their own governments.

“If the status quo in the region persists, it seems clear that we will see a future where the region is completely destabilized by widespread protest, violence, and lack of access to basic necessities,” Majdalani says.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have acknowledged that looming climate change is a problem, and have presented plans to curb it.

Last year, Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry unveiled “Israel 2050,” a plan focused on addressing climate change and promoting sustainable economic growth. It proposes investments in clean energy and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

It does not, however, put in place any specific target for carbon emissions cuts, and it provides no plan for how Israel plans to deal with the humanitarian crisis caused by water shortages in the West Bank and Gaza. Since the plan was suggested, new leadership has taken over Israel’s government, but what, if anything, they plan to change about Israel’s plans on climate remains unclear.

It seems unlikely that the Palestinian Authority could do much to truly stem the coming tide of hotter temperatures, reflected in the modest goals set out in the Palestinian Cross-Sector Strategy of 2017-2022. Yet the PA is struggling to hit even those relatively low benchmarks.

By the end of 2020, renewable energy sources constituted just 3% of energy consumption across all sectors of the Palestinian economy, falling well short of the 10% goal set by the Palestinian Energy Authority. The occupied territories were similarly behind on their goals for each specific type of renewable, with solar, wind, and biomass production all lagging.

Attracting renewable energy investment, or indeed any investment, is made all the more difficult by the occupation’s arbitrary movement restrictions, demolitions and import/export restrictions.

“While both Israel and Palestine have put forth and started to implement plans that might combat climate change in a small way, neither is even remotely close to prepared for the disaster that is looming,” Gidon Bromberg, EcoPeace’s Israel Director tells J Street. “Without much more significant action from both governments, the region does not stand much of a chance.”

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The ‘Green Blue Deal’

Progressive activists around the world are calling for more aggressive action to tackle climate change. In both Israel and Palestine, a vibrant movement of climate activists is beating the drum, trying to get both the Israeli government and the PA to wake up to the looming climate disaster.

EcoPeace has centered its efforts around a comprehensive climate plan it calls the “Green Blue Deal.” The plan proposes extensive investment in green job development and infrastructure throughout the region and provides an outline of what an equitable Israeli/Palestinian water allocation would look like (you can read the full plan here).

However, no matter what plan is adopted in the region, any climate-specific plan will not be enough on its own to prevent the effects of climate change from being disproportionately felt by those in the occupied territories. That’s why it’s critical for the US government to work with both the Israeli government and Palestinian leaders to encourage cooperation, investment and respect for human rights in order to tackle this looming disaster. Aid contributions to both Israel and the Palestinian people should be designed with climate change in mind, and the United States must commit to using every tool in the toolkit to bring the parties closer to a peaceful two-state solution and an end to the occupation.

“If we are to avoid the worst-case scenario of continuously deteriorating water shortages and civil unrest in occupied Palestinian territory, immediate action must be taken,” said Majdalani.

EcoPeace has also outlined a series of steps that the Biden administration can take to facilitate climate action in the region. Chief among the proposals is that the US serves as an impartial mediator in negotiations over water allocation in the region, a potential stepping-stone for further mediation and cooperation.

Here at J Street, we have endorsed EcoPeace’s Green Blue Deal, and are forcefully advocating for policies that push back against the occupation and push in the direction of a two-state peace agreement. The bleak reality that climate change will be particularly devastating for those in occupied Palestinian territory only highlights how urgent it is to end the destructive status quo of endless conflict and permanent occupation.

Along with progressive allies like EcoPeace, we are building the movement for a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians. That means organizing for climate action, but it also means fighting for justice and self-determination for every person in the region. If you’d like to be a part of that movement, please join J Street today.

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