What is environmental injustice and how does it affect Palestine?

Environmental issues and the climate crisis are increasingly being referred to as social justice issues. But how are they linked? And how does it relate to what’s going on in Palestine?
  Published:  14 Jun 2021    |      3 minute read

The world is an unequal place. Marginalised and vulnerable people bear the brunt of injustice, whether that's social, economic or environmental.

According to sociologist Dr Robert Bullard, "environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations."

The environmental justice movement was born from Bullard's work in the 1970s highlighting over-pollution in minority ethnic communities.

If environmental justice is about the right we all have to protection from environmental harm, then environmental injustice is what happens when some of us aren't afforded that right.

Here in the UK, there are plenty of examples of poorer and marginalised communities being disproportionately exposed to environmental harm. Take the case of 9-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Ella lived in a densely populated area close to a busy road where toxic fumes frequently exceeded legal limits. She died following an asthma attack, with an inquest later listing air pollution as a cause of death.

Thanks to Ella’s mother and other campaigners, the dangers of traffic-related pollution are becoming more publicised. But health-harming infrastructure continues to get the go-ahead, like incinerators.

Incinerators are waste-burning plants that produce pollution, causing environmental harm and health issues. They're often built in the poorest, most densely populated parts of the country, meaning those who are better off benefit from clean air, and those who aren’t suffer the consequence. It’s environmental injustice and commonplace all over the world.

Environmental injustices in Palestine

A Palestinian family (shown very small) passes by a section of the controversial Israeli “security barrier” in Abu Dis, West Bank.
Palestinian family passes by Israeli “security barrier”
Credit: Uriel Sinai via Getty Images

Every so often, renewed violence casts fresh media scrutiny on Palestine’s plight. But the devastation continues, whether the cameras are there or not.

Israel has been condemned in dozens of resolutions by the United Nations Human Rights Council for its use of force against Palestine. But its force isn’t just exercised through violence and displacement, it’s also exercised through environmental damage.

Occupied Palestinian Territory – a term used to describe territories occupied by Israel – has changed a lot over the last century. The systematic destruction of entire villages and towns by things like bulldozers and explosives has had a huge impact on the environment and its residents.

Agriculture

It’s a common myth that Palestine was formerly a "desert land". In fact, it was green and fertile, providing those who lived there with a thriving agricultural tradition and produced their own grain, olives, melons and grapes, to name a few.

Due to the confiscation of their land, that tradition is no more. Israel built an extensive network of roads and homes for settlers on agricultural land, and the new infrastructure was declared a military zone for Palestinians.

The destruction of perfectly good land forced thousands into desolation, starvation, and extreme poverty.

Water

Access to safe, clean water is a basic human right. But sadly, water is a powerful political tool. Israel controls Palestinian water supply, which means water is used to coerce and control Palestinian residents.

The water Palestinians do have access to isn’t always safe. Israel routinely dumps waste and raw sewage throughout Occupied Palestinian Territories, resulting in poisoned water supplies.

And that’s not all. Natural resources, such as water aquifers – a body of rock that holds groundwater – have been taken away from Palestinians.

Sustainability

Sustainable living is our future, but in Palestine it's currently not an option. Israel controls what can and can’t be built on occupied Palestinian land, and eco-fittings such as solar panels are not permitted.

Palestinian residents have no control over their own properties and land. Yet local groups and residents are rallying together for solutions. Our sister organisation in Palestine (PENGON) has been involved in local renewable energy schemes, empowering women to take the energy crisis into their own hands.

Pollution

Pollution is a silent killer, linked to cancers, miscarriage and other devastating health consequences. Since occupation, large number of high-polluting companies have moved to the West Bank and were offered tax incentives to do so.

What's more, constant airstrikes in Gaza have rendered the land and its soil dangerous as it contains many harmful toxic metals like cobalt and mercury.

Resistance

Despite the multiple challenges faced by Palestinians, pockets of hope exist. Take our sister organisation PENGON, the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network.

They use communications and international advocacy to highlight Israeli control over Palestinian resources and provide digital options to register environmental violations across the territory. They also carry out intervention work with local communities on issues like protecting biodiversity. Watch the video they’ve made on health and the environment in the Gaza strip:

What can I do to help?

It’s unbelievable to think basic human rights can be taken away and damaged just for political power and control. The environmental injustice in Palestine is an urgent issue that needs your support. You can help in many ways:

  • Write to your MP asking them to take action on the environmental injustice happening in Palestine.
  • Visit PENGON, our sister organisation in Palestine, and learn more about the environmental resistance taking place on the ground.
  • Share this article with friends and family.