Topic: ActivismColonialism and Greenwash in Occupied Palestinian Territories

The Israeli State’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories is a well-documented international crisis, and the project’s whitewashing and social justice implications are relatively well known. In this article, first published in IFLA! Issue 6, Zainab Mahmood reviews the occupation’s ecological component. Her words remain more relevant than ever today. She finds profound environmental tensions between the lifestyles afforded to Israeli citizens and those who live in occupied territories, and that greenwashing is frequently used to distract from colonial actions.

By Zainab Mahmood

Greenwashing – performative or selective care for the environment – is employed by governments to divert attention from systemic discrimination for financial and reputational gain – discrimination which will often have a direct impact on the degree to which a community experiences climate change. The voices and bodies of the people most vulnerable to environmental injustice can therefore be erased by greenwashing. Israeli settler colonialism in Palestine provides a current and historical example of how greenwashing can enable environmental and cultural erasure to such an extent that it becomes environmental or green colonialism.

Abeer Butmeh, coordinator of the Palestine Environmental NGOs Network (Pengon) explains that the Israeli State greenwashes, appearing ‘to be environmentally friendly in order to deflect attention from criminal activity.’ The state markets itself as a pioneer in desert ecology, water management, agricultural irrigation techniques, and solar energy, but, Butmeh explains, when Palestinians install such technologies for themselves, they are often destroyed.

Anti-Palestinian environmental discourse has been entrenched in the Israeli state from the offset

We know that colonialism should be considered the antithesis to environmentalism and environmental justice, but as Butmeh points out, Israel has ‘strong marketing skills’ and has employed greenwashing to gain international support and detract attention from its whitewashing regime.

Dr Moriel Ram, who lectures in Israeli politics at Newcastle University, agrees: ‘greenwashing has been part of the justification mechanisms with which Israel rationalise its rule over Palestinian space. For instance, several [Israeli] settlements in the West Bank sell themselves as producers of organic food and providers of ecological lifestyle.’

In 1980 and 1981 respectively, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, making them officially part of the Israeli State. Annexation refers to a state unilaterally seizing another territory within its borders – this is illegal under the Charter of the United Nations.

The Oslo Accords, a set of agreements between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed in 1993 and 1995, prescribe full or partial Palestinian control over ‘Area A’ and ‘Area B’, which make up 40% of the West Bank. Moreover, the Fourth Geneva Convention, which was bound in international law by the United Nations Security Council in 1993, is also meant to guarantee rights to the 150,000 Palestinians living under Israeli control in ‘Area C’. Article 49 explicitly addresses deportations, transfers and evacuations, stating that ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’ These agreements, however, are largely ignored by Israel – illegal settlements expand daily.

The very act of building Israeli settlements on Palestinian agricultural land is not merely illegal. Despite the Israeli State’s messaging, it is also detrimental to the natural environment.

Anti-Palestinian environmental discourse has been entrenched in the Israeli State from the offset. Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, said: ‘it seems as if God had covered the soil of Palestine with rocks and marshes and sand so that its beauty can only be brought out by those who love it and will devote their lives to healing its wounds.’ These alleged 'wounds' imply a 'wounder’, and warrant a 'healer', and it’s not difficult to see who Weizmann is accusing – or championing. However, Butmeh explains that Palestine ‘was a rich land and it has fertile soil. We have a high percentage of Palestinian farmers before occupation.’ With this in mind, we might wonder whether Weizmann's supposed 'wounds' refer to Palestinian, culture, identity, and lives themselves.

On Bedouin land in the Negev desert, towards the south, the Israeli State is enabling the construction of Israeli-owned farms that Moriel says ‘promote an ecological lifestyle, but also connect to the political and national agenda of settling the land.’ The Bedouin people, whose name derives from the Arabic badawī meaning ‘desert dweller’, share a culture based around herding goats and camels, which serve as sources of dairy products, wool and meat to fuel their livelihood.

So who exactly do environmental projects benefit, if not everyone? Despite some Israelis developing small-scale eco-initiatives, Moriel thinks that ‘the environmental discourse in Israel [is] still relegated to the periphery of the debates in Israeli societies as most focus right now is on socio-economic...crises.’ While Israelis can choose whether to participate in such ‘discourse’ and ‘ecological lifestyle,’ Palestinians struggle to survive the confiscation of their natural resources.

This disparity has been enshrined in law. The Oslo Accords designate 80% of joint water aquifer resources in Palestine to Israelis. Israeli citizens consume an estimated six times as much water as the 2.9 million Palestinians living in the West Bank.

‘When we see the map for the apartheid wall and the map for the groundwater… we see the route for the apartheid wall it was designed to… control the maximum amount of water resources to be inside Israel,’ says Butmeh. She adds that Israel’s national water company Mekorot markets itself as an expert in water management despite ‘control[ling] all the water resources in Palestine in order to supply the illegal Israeli settlements and [leaving] the Palestinian communities without water.’

The environmental work of charities like the Jewish National Fund (JNF) have also served to erase and replace Palestinian natural identity. ‘86 Palestinian villages are buried under the JNF projects… So they changed the Palestinian nature and they changed the Palestinian identity under environmental cover,’ states Butmeh. Since 1901, the JNF has planted 250 million mostly non-native trees in Israel under afforestation projects with slogans such as ‘Turning the Desert Green’. It markets itself as a green NGO concerned with forest and water management, but doesn’t address its contribution to the uprooting of 800,000 native Palestinian olive trees.

'Greenwashing has been part of the justification mechanisms with which Israel rationalise its rule over Palestinian space'

The JNF has greenwashed its supporters worldwide – prompting Naomi Klein to argue that trees ‘have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation.’ Successful greenwashing with the help of the JNF, and marketing of the destruction and subsequent erasing of the Palestinian landscape as a righteous, spiritual path to the Jewish claim on the land has been essential to the success of this Zionist project – as has the violation of international law.

In January 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex a further 30% of the West Bank, which mostly consists of a 105 km strip of fertile land connecting the West Bank to Jordan via the Jordan river, a vital local source of water. At the time of writing, Netanyahu has said that annexation plans are ‘very much on the table’ despite the delay after ‘normalising’ relations with the United Arab Emirates.

While existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank already violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, plans to annex the Jordan Valley will enable further illegal activity, restricting the movement of Palestinians, limiting natural resources available to them, and building more settlements on agricultural land.

‘These days it’s the worst. When I pass from my home to the work I can feel that Israeli settlements expand daily,’ says Butmeh. She says that the best thing the international community can do to bring environmental justice to Palestinians is to boycott Israel’s proclaimed eco-projects and companies. This includes Mekorot, which has begun supplying treated water abroad, and the EuroAsia Interconnector, the underwater power cable connecting the national grids of Israel, Cyprus and Greece.

As Eric Margolis, a Jewish reporter on climate and foreign policy has said, ‘global warming will exacerbate the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the conflict will also exacerbate the effects of global warming.’ The Israeli State’s colonial ideology must therefore be dismantled to ensure social and climate justice for all.

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