Settler colonialism and the destruction of Palestine’s ecology

May 6, 2024
Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability. Photo: Peter Boyle

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh has dedicated his life to studying the diversity of animals and plants in his homeland; not only in Bethlehem and the West Bank where he lives, but throughout historic Palestine and many Middle Eastern countries.

Since Qumsiyeh’s homeland has been occupied for 75 years, it’s inevitable that colonisation’s impact has been a central theme of his research, including at the Palestine Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability, which he has run for the past 10 years.

Qumsiyeh told a lecture at Boorloo/Perth's State Library on April 18 that Palestine is like a patient, whose current circumstances of starvation, war and the destruction of people’s lives, could be diagnosed and understood only by looking for historical factors as the cause.

He noted wryly that the case is “not congenital”. “There has always been a lot of food available; life was very good for thousands of years. So the patient was very healthy, rarely had any conflicts. If you took away the conflict that we are currently in the middle of, you’d have to go back to the Crusades to find another conflict.

“Palestine was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious society living in peace and harmony. There was a diversity of people, culture and languages: before 1948, 44 languages were spoken here.”

However, the Nakba ended this, with the violent displacement of people who were seen as “needing to go” for the state of Israel to be established.

“Every single Zionist — whether Jewish, Christian or working for the British Empire — everybody knew that this entailed the removal of the local people and, of course, that’s what happened.

“Around 530 plus villages and towns were depopulated from 1948 to 1950.

“A friend of my mother, who had studied at teacher’s college in Jerusalem, was killed in the massacre of Deir Yassin, together with her students.”

Often left out of the story, Qumsiyeh said, is the impact of this colonisation on the natural environment.

He explained how Israel’s policy had often entailed the destruction of whole ecosystems and the loss of many plants and animals.

“Humanity is facing a humanitarian global catastrophe: this includes things like climate change, destruction and pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, invasive species that are now spreading and of course settler colonialism and its impact on our world.

“For example, when Israel destroyed 530 Palestinian villages and towns, it also bulldozed all the trees around them — including domestic trees, like figs and olives and almond trees, or old trees, like oaks, hawthorn or carobs.

“It did plant others, but they were the wrong type: pine trees are good for northern Europe but not necessarily in Palestine where there’s a dry climate, so they’re susceptible to fire.

“Fires consumed the pine trees planted to replace indigenous Palestinian trees.

“How do we know there were indigenous Palestinian trees and farmlands there? Because after the fire, you can see the terraces our ancestors built that showed it was cultivated.”

Other Israeli state policies included the diversion of the Jordan River to irrigate “replacement” agriculture — which had led to it becoming little more than a stream, when once it had flowed at 1.35 billion cubic metres a year.

Israel destroyed the wetlands at Lake Hula, which Qumsiyeh said caused the loss of 219 animal species, as well as the removal of 12 communities that lived in the area.

Now students at his institute — which is connected to Bethlehem University — conduct research into similar environmental issues, such as the dumping of Israeli waste into West Bank territory, endangering the health of surrounding Palestinian communities.

The transfer of waste violates international law, with six of the 15 waste facilities processing hazardous material.

Student researchers and volunteers at the institute are treating and rehabilitating local wild animals, researching food sovereignty, developing a community garden and taking education programs to marginalised communities.

“We have a biodiversity centre with a molecular laboratory attached to it, a natural history exhibit and we also run ethnography exhibitions,” Qumsiyeh said.

“We welcome volunteers from around the world: so far people from 45 countries, including Australia and New Zealand, have come and worked with us. They work in the garden, even building a biogas unit.”

Reflecting on Israel’s genocidal war on Palestine, Qumsiyeh said the future could go one of three ways: wholesale genocide of the Indigenous population, such as in the United States; after the mass killing, the colonists leave (as was the case in Algeria); or the two peoples living together equally in one country.

This last option, he said, was the most common end for settler colonialism, as seen across the Americas, most of Europe and Asia and in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

“I prefer the third option; it’s the least bloody one,” he said, adding that Israel seems intent on pursuing the first scenario in Gaza.

“We are people just like everybody else,” Qumsiyeh said. “My family happens to be Christian; my grandfather’s best friend in school was Jewish under the Ottoman Empire. We never had problems with the religions. We do have a problem with colonisers. What we want is freedom.”

Qumsiyeh was speaking as part of a national tour. He was introduced by Indigenous and human rights scholar Jack Collard, with a Welcome to Country delivered by Uncle Ben Taylor.

[Visit Palestinian Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability for more information. Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh’s book, Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (2004), is available through Pluto Press.]

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