Environmental justice, not dialogue, for Palestinians

<p>A mural in Palestine, 2014.</p>

A mural in Palestine, 2014.

We are writing regarding a troubling event held Thursday named “The Dialogue Project” hosted by J Street U Duke and Duke Environmental Alliance in conjunction with Arava Institute. We find Arava’s positioning of itself as “neutral” and its emphasis on bringing Palestinians and Israelis to have a dialogue about environmental issues to be intellectually dishonest and inherently violent.

For starters, Arava poses as a “neutral body” when this is clearly not the case. Arava receives funding from the Israeli government. In addition, Arava also has a partnership with Ben Gurion University of the Negev, a university based in Israel which provides an accelerated B.A. track for Israeli fighter pilots and grants special scholarships to students who directly participated in Israel’s brutal military attack on the Gaza Strip, which killed over 1,000 Palestinians. Even if we were to ignore these associations and believe Arava’s claim to so-called “neutrality,” we still have plenty of cause for concern.

A position of “neutrality” is violent. It is complicit in the existing order—an order which seeks to destroy and replace. Simply put, the settler-colonial project of Israel is one of the annihilation of Palestinian people and culture, partially constituted through the appropriation and brutal transformation of land and the environment. Arava’s “neutrality” actively “greenwashes” this reality by normalizing colonial devastation and making the colonial state seeming eco-friendly through the language of cooperation and dialogue. 

For example, Arava claims that “the lack of water for people and nations will be a constant cause for further conflict.” The organization further claims that this “water-scarcity” is both part of the region’s natural geography as well as an inevitable consequence of climate change. However, Palestine is not water-scarce. In fact, Ramallah experiences more rainfall than London. 

By appealing to the myth of water-scarcity, Arava purposely avoids addressing Israel’s monopoly on resources and its restriction of water to Palestinians for decades. Since Israel first occupied the West Bank in 1967, Israel has sought to control Palestinian access to water through water agreements that make Palestinians water-dependent on Israel. The Oslo Accords II in 1995 which were supposed to remain in force for only five years, set in place an agreement that provides for an unequal allocation of water sources, allowing Israel to use 80 percent and leaving only 20 percent for Palestinians. This agreement is still in place despite the fact that the population of Palestinians has nearly doubled since then. 

Israel has exploited and exacerbated this disparity in manifold ways e.g. cutting off water to Palestinians during Ramadan, destroying water pipelines in the West Bank, seizing water tanks from Palestinians, and preventing Palestinians from developing water infrastructure. This state of affairs seems unlikely to be overturned anytime soon. In June 2017, a water agreement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel increased the amount of water that the PA can buy from Israel, thus further entrenching Palestinian reliance on Israel. This overwhelming power divide ensures that any dialogue fails to acknowledge the fundamental concept of water as a shared resource. Palestinians, lacking the power to negotiate this dependence away, can only negotiate the quota of water they receive from Israel. 

Despite what Arava claims, supposed water-scarcity cannot be a site of common ground, as Israel does not suffer its consequences. In fact, Israelis consume four times more water per person than Palestinians. Meanwhile, Israel profits because Palestinians are forced to purchase water from Israel. The Palestinian and Israeli realities are polar opposites, not a shared struggle. 

Beyond water, Israel has been systematically unleashing environmental violence on Palestinians since Israel’s inception. Just earlier last week, Israeli settlers chopped down a hundred olive trees in al-Mughayyir village in Ramallah (West Bank) continuing with its long-standing pattern of destruction. Between 1967 and 2015, Israel uprooted about 800,000 olive trees in Palestine. Due to the symbolic, cultural, and material importance of olive trees for Palestinians, Israelis have specifically targeted olive trees for destruction in a way that mirrors their targeted destruction of Palestinian people. 

Yet another form of environmental violence weaponized against Palestinians is the outsourcing of toxic waste to Palestinian lands and bodies. Israel has “industrial zones” in its settlements in Palestine where they set less environmental regulations and provide financial incentives such as tax breaks and government subsidies for companies that wish to build waste treatment facilities in the West Bank. Additionally, in 1982, an Israeli court ordered the shutdown of Geshuri Industries, a pesticide and fertilizer company due to the harmful effects the pollution would have on Israeli citizens. Following Israel’s logic of apartheid and its de-facto categorization of Palestinians as sub-human, Geshuri Industries relocated from Kfar Saba in Israel to an area near Tulkarem in the West Bank where they could operate with impunity. In fact, a significant portion of Israel’s waste-treatment facilities, predominately treating waste produced by Israelis in Israel, is actually located in the West Bank, leaving the harm of the toxic pollutants and contaminants to be borne by Palestinians. 

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Israel’s systematic devastation of Palestinian lands and people. In this context, Arava’s positioning of the environment as “common ground” is nonsensical. By remaining silent on these environmental assaults, whose environment is Arava claiming to protect? 

Frankly, we find J Street U Duke and Duke Environmental Alliance’s celebration of this event as a “peacemaking event” to learn about Arava’s efforts to “loosen the tension between even the oldest of feuds” to be both ludicrous and shameful. We reject the premise that dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians can solve environmental problems when Israeli violence is responsible for Palestinian environmental degradation and unbearable living conditions. As we have clarified, this not a mere “feud.” The environmental degradation in Palestine is the result of Israel inflicting decades of environmental violence as a method of collective punishment to ensure the complete domination and annihilation of Palestinian people. 

No dialogue between an oppressor and the oppressed will bring justice because dialogue implies parity. Dialogue invokes the vision of two equally responsible members of a conflict coming together to sit at the table to rationally talk things over. Dialogue locates the root cause of “conflict” in vague notions of “difference” that must be overcome by a sense of common humanity. The possibility of such a transcendence is absurd given the fact that the state of Israel is predicated upon the construction of this difference and a rule by difference, epitomized by the recently-passed Nation-State Law. As long as Israel continues to define itself this way, it will continue to perceive Palestinians as a threat that should be removed violently.

Difference itself cannot drive conflict. Difference becomes an issue when it is intentionally constructed, codified, and used to categorize the population and assign differential rights. Difference as problematic is the direct consequence of an ideological and material project of domination. By implying that difference (the very difference that Israeli rule is predicated upon) is the cause of violence, dialogue masks the real driver of not only violence but also environmental degradation in Palestine: settler-colonial occupation. This is a matter of power, not difference. Palestinians need justice, not dialogue. 

Hadeel Abdelhy and Sanjidah Ahmed are Trinity seniors.


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