Environmental devastation and the war on Palestine

Originally published: Red Pepper on December 1, 2023 by Samira Homerang Saunders (more by Red Pepper)  | (Posted Dec 05, 2023)

War is indiscriminate in every sense: As thousands of people are killed, the land they live on, the food and water sources they depend on, and the air they breathe are also being destroyed.

As information continues to emerge about the ongoing genocidal violence against Palestinians in Gaza, we can begin to further understand the inter-relatedness between genocide, environmental degradation and war.

Gaza’s toxic biosphere

War creates a toxic biosphere. In April 2009, an inspection by the Arab Commission for Human Rights and the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) found that earth samples taken in Gaza contained radioactive and carcinogenic elements including depleted uranium and phosphates. It is a reality of the Gaza strip that reconstruction efforts reuse debris from the bombings, patching up and embedding toxins in new buildings.

In 2013, the head of Oncology at Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza—which was closed down last week under assault by Israeli forces—said he expected the cancer rates to double within five years after Israel used uranium in the 2008-2009 war. He referred to that campaign as an ‘environmental catastrophe’.

According to the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, within just two months in 2023, Israel dropped the equivalent of two nuclear bombs on Gaza, where over two million people live confined to a space half the size of Hiroshima. The impact of constant bombing, including the use of white phosphorous in Gaza and Southern Lebanon, is of an unprecedented magnitude.

In November, Israeli shells incinerated 40,000 olive trees in Southern Lebanon. Over the previous month its bombs burned through almost 3.5 million square metres of oak, lemon and banana trees, grasslands and shrublands, a cultural, spiritual and agricultural disaster.

Even Gaza’s water supplies are under the stringent control of the Israeli government, as documented and condemned repeatedly by major international bodies including the UN and Amnesty International. Before the current attack, up to 96 per cent of drinking water in Gaza was designated unfit for human consumption.

When Israel cut off all supplies to the strip in October, it rendered all three of its desalination plants inoperable. In the south, where the majority of the population has been forced to flee, all of the water wells and sewage pumping stations have ceased functioning. The choice for Gazans is either death by direct military violence, or death by dehydration, starvation and/or disease.

Financial stakes

Just three weeks into the current bombardment, the Israeli government announced plans to expand its offshore oil and gas industry. It issued 12 licences to six companies, including British company BP, to explore new offshore natural gas fields. The Israeli Energy Minister, Israel Katz, stated that ‘the winning companies have committed to unprecedented investments’.

This is not the first time Israel has engaged negotiations on foreign investment in close proximity to bombing Gaza. In 2008, a few months prior to its military invasion, Israel declared sovereignty over Gaza’s offshore reserves. It then sought to re-engage in negotiations with British Gas to reach a deal in relation to natural gas investment, in light of plans that they were making for ‘a new post-war arrangement for the Gaza Strip.’

These negotiations concerned Gaza Marine, a natural gas field just off the coast. In fact, it is closer to land than any other offshore deposit under Israel’s control, making it cheaper to develop. Its net value has been estimated at about $4.592 billion.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development estimates that the combined worth of oil and natural gas deposits across the entire Levant Basin is upwards of $524 billion. In 2022, in the wake of the global energy crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel sought to become a major natural gas exporter, signing an historic agreement with the EU, and Egypt as a through-line.

In September 2023, Netenyahu delivered a speech at the UN headquarters in which he presented a map for a ‘The New Middle East’, with Palestine wiped from it. He described the imagined region as:

[a] visionary corridor that will stretch across the Arabian peninsula and Israel. This corridor will bypass maritime checkpoints (or chokepoints) and dramatically lower the costs of goods, communication and energy for over two billion people. What a historic change for my country!

War trade

Another factor relevant to the exploitation of those resources is the Ben Gurion Canal. The proposed alternative to the Suez Canal would be owned and controlled by Israel—and by extension, the U.S. It is based on a 1960s feasibility study that proposed using nuclear explosives to excavate a 160-mile canal joining the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.

The nuclear method was abandoned, although conventional excavation methods would be prohibitively expensive. Costs could however be cut if the proposed canal route were to run straight through Gaza—where the Israeli Foreign Minister has already noted plans to indefinitely maintain a presence. While Israel may plan to treat Gaza as a trade route and fossil fuel reserve, over two million Palestinians stand in the way.

When Joe Biden’s energy security advisor, Amos Hochstein, visited Israel last week to push for the development of Gaza’s offshore gas reserves. He claimed that the move will ‘revitalise’ the Palestinian economy. Israel however has no intention of allowing Palestinians to benefit from any of the commercial opportunities it is so keen to pursue. Its government views the entire population as an obstacle.

It’s urgency to speed up fossil fuel extraction and expand its fossil-based economy indicates something more integral about the impetus of this war, and its long-term outcomes. In its ecocidal actions, Israel is reconfirming its commitment to ethnic cleansing.

We all should be anxiously concerned with the socio-political precedent set when a government can cross all rhetorical ‘red-lines’ with impunity. Wiping out entire family trees, poisoning olive trees, drying up the Jordan river, and the hostile infrastructure of apartheid—all contribute to the devastation of Palestine, and to our collective downfall as a viable planet.

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