Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza is an ecological disaster

December 14, 2023
text says no climate justice on occupied land
The struggle against climate change and ecological crisis needs to be linked to the struggle for a just peace and freedom for Palestine. Graphic: Green Left

At the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai, following “the hottest summer on record”, demonstrations were held explicitly calling for an end to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.

As international solidarity with Palestinian people predicated on human rights continues to develop, it is intersecting with growing outrage over the environmental cost of war.

Israel’s decades-long siege of Gaza and its escalation into a genocidal war, beginning after the events of October 7, has spurred frequent links between imperialism and environmental destruction. Nada Majdalani, the Palestine director for EcoPeace Middle-East, told Al Jazeera that “this war has destroyed every aspect of Gaza’s environment”.

Prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg recently declared that there is “no climate justice on occupied land”, rearticulating a core demand of left-wing ecological currents from as early as the 1960s, as well as rural and Indigenous peoples.

Thunberg and two co-authors from Sweden’s Fridays for Future wrote in a Guardian opinion piece on December 5: “Contrary to what many have claimed, Fridays for Future has not “been radicalised” or “become political”. We have always been political, because we have always been a movement for justice. Standing in solidarity with Palestinians and all affected civilians has never been in question for us.

“Advocating for climate justice fundamentally comes from a place of caring about people and their human rights. That means speaking up when people suffer, are forced to flee their homes or are killed — regardless of the cause.

“Our solidarity with Palestine is no different, and we refuse to let the public focus shift away from the horrifying human suffering that Palestinians are currently facing.”

The movement for Palestinian liberation can now add expropriation and ecological ruination, among war and genocide, to its condemnations of Israel, its allies in the West (especially the United States) and the transnational organisations supporting its brutal massacre in Gaza.

As the magnitude of extreme weather events increases each year, scientific consensus now suggests that there is no longer time for the gradual, progressive, transition that Global North policymakers and economic elites advocate.

James Hansen and an international team of scholars have made the case that the actions (and inactions) of today will influence the magnitude of future climate impacts, and whether those impacts will persist for a few generations or thousands of years.

Climate justice

As a framework, climate justice highlights the social justice and human rights dimensions of the ecological crisis, often emphasising the unequal and disproportionate impacts of climate change, where impacts are experienced most severely in areas and by peoples who have contributed the least towards them.

Climate justice takes a broad, intersectional approach to the impacts on the everyday lives of people, by scrutinising how environmental destruction worsens discrimination geographically as well as along class, racial and gender lines. This is underscored by a joint paper by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), published on November 20, that found the wealthiest 1% of the global population contribute double the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the poorest 50%.

It also considers the environmental and social impacts of colonisation, dispossession or displacement through conflict and war.

The ecological cost of the war on Gaza

Wars are major sources of GHG emissions. The global military footprint is estimated to account for 5.5% of global emissions. The settler-colonial violence perpetrated against Palestine is no different in this regard, and has certainly been ecologically disastrous.

The ruthless assault, involving the deployment of incendiary and chemical weapons such as white-phosphorous, as well as the shelling of social and civilian infrastructure, and the operation of Israel’s fuel- and energy-intensive military forces all have enormous carbon costs and far-reaching ecological consequences.

Some obvious and immediate consequences include destruction of landscape, air pollution, habitat fragmentation, contaminated and eroded soil and poisoned groundwater and surface water. These further impact the long-term health of land and people, the ability to grow food, fish and access clean water.

Thirty-five days into Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, which started on October 7, GHG emissions from the war were estimated at “approximately 60.3 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent”, according to a report in the Jordan Times by engineers from Yarmouk University. This admittedly conservative figure included emissions from a variety of sources such as “fuel consumption, munitions, Trinitrotoluene (TNT), the demolition of buildings and the reconstruction of civilian infrastructure.”

Other contributing factors include fires, the release of pollutants such as asbestos and particulate matter, and the hazardous materials released from damaged industrial storage facilities.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that “the bulk of the emissions in this war will be from military fuel use — Israeli jet fuel and diesel, from urban and landscape fires caused either by the destruction of buildings or targeted attacks, and from the carbon costs of reconstructing Gaza.”

Prior to the current onslaught, Gaza was profoundly affected by climate change and environmental destruction. Marwan Bishara wrote in Al Jazeera that temperatures in Occupied Palestine rose by 1.5⁰C between 1950 and 2017. There has also been large-scale destruction of infrastructure such as sewerage networks and reservoirs, and the depletion of natural resources.

Omar Shoshan, President of the Jordan Environment Union, told the Jordan Times: “The Gaza Strip is a stark example in the face of a complex crisis from a humanitarian, environmental, health and climate perspective due to the repeated wars it has experienced in recent years.”

Water, oil and gas

Another dimension of Israel’s war on Gaza is control over the oil and gas reserves off Gaza’s coast and under the West Bank. As Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in Middle East Eye on November 15, Israel's “ultimate objective is not only to demolish Hamas and/or exclude Palestinians from their homeland, but to confiscate Gaza's multi-billion-dollar gas resources”.

Israel has also been accused of using water as a weapon of war. As the Global Ecosocialist Network’s Memet Uludag wrote on November 17, “The ongoing blockade of Gaza has turned a water crisis into a humanitarian disaster.”

Uludag quotes a 2022 paper published in Environmental Epidemiology, which found that Gaza’s “Coastal Aquifer, which is the main source of fresh water in Gaza, is over extracted to compensate for the water shortage and believed to be irreversibly damaged because of contamination from sewage and sea water leakage ... As of 2018, over 92.6% of the groundwater was deemed unfit for human consumption...”

Uludag also cites concerning data from the Gaza Beekeeping Association, which found that “the number of beehives in the Palestinian enclave has dropped dramatically ... mainly as a result of Israel’s military incursions into farmland along the border.”

According to Khalil Abu Yahia, a martyred Palestinian climate researcher, “with severely limited access to food, water, energy and health services, and with the devastation to homes and shelters across the Strip, the population has very little capacity to cope with any major climate event or disaster…[o]n top of this, the increasing restrictions on Gazan movement or humanitarian support is barring their access to key adaptation strategies, such as migration or adaptive agriculture.”

Reconstruction of war-ravaged areas also generates a large quantity of carbon dioxide, primarily through the processes of clearing rubble, producing concrete and cement. Soon, Gaza will need to prioritise reconstruction and restoration, which may prove costly from an emissions standpoint.

All this means that the struggle against climate change and ecological crisis needs to be linked to the struggle for a just peace and freedom for Palestine.

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