Can Palestine and Israel find common ground on environmental issues?

The Palestine-Israel conflict is hotly contested and has been for over seven decades. Economically, the pro-Palestine wing contends that the separation of Israel and Palestine has resulted in a lower GDP level and employment rate for the Islamic region and that Israel has manipulated Palestine’s economy for the worse. On the other side of this debate, the pro-Israeli opinion maintains that Palestine does not suffer as a direct consequence of the conflict and Israel’s financial success does not stem from Palestinian destitution.

As these two sides have become more deeply entrenched within their arguments, the discussion has consequently reached a stalemate. In order to stimulate conversation regarding the economic conflict in a more productive manner, the issue should be reframed through an environmental lens. More critically examining the effects of the financial conflict, such as a drain on agricultural resources, water pollution, and construction of sustainable energy, uncovers an impactful facade to the century-long schism that can help break the stalemate.

A truncated description of the conflict’s history helps explain the current economic state of the region. As demonstrated through a timeline of the conflict constructed by BBC, the British government seized the area known as Palestine from the Ottoman Empire at the end of 1917 and declared the land would be founded as a Jewish state  through the Balfour Declaration. This document was exceptionally vague ergo allowing for different interpretations and conflict. Following the Holocaust during WWII, many European Jews migrated to this area, and in 1948, mostly due to strong US-Israel bilateral relations, Israel was declared an independent state. The ramifications of this decision still resonate today as Palestinians who were displaced by the separation of Jewish and Arab populations remain foreigners to their native land. Since 1948, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Palestinian divisions of Israel, have been economically deprived. 

The apparatus of the Palestinian economy, as seen through the Palestinian viewpoint, has been ruptured by the division of Israel. It is well-known that the Palestinian economy, regarding total GDP and employment rate, is suffering and has been for some time. Palestine’s total GDP in 2019 (before the COVID-19 global economic downturn) was $15 billion with per capita GDP at $2923.40 while their unemployment rate was 25.35%. Simultaneously, Israel’s GDP was $395.10 billion and per capita was $35,293.40 with a minuscule 3.45% unemployment rate.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and other advocates for Palestinian statehood argue that the disparity between the two economies is braided into the conflict. The result of displacing Palestinians within what was once their home into an enclosed, resource-deprived land has blighted their ability to succeed economically. With a large number of Palestinians squeezed into small, arid land, it becomes difficult to avail any natural resources for production.

Many believe that Israel’s occupation of the land has strangled any possibility for Palestine’s economic development. Since Israel owns Palestinian territory as per their interpretation of the Balfour Declaration, Israel authorizes the flow of trade into the region and has used it to their own advantage. In 2018, Israeli products accounted for 82.5% of Palestinian imports and about 55% of Palestinian exports. Some see Israel’s presence in Palestine is an example of systemic imperialism, occupying a territory for trade purposes. The country profits off of Palestinian occupation and stronghold their ‘colony’ into funding Israeli markets and their economy’s expense. The pro-Israeli party, however, disputes the idea that their prosperity results in Palestinian poverty.

Israel claims that its success stems from a long-standing relationship with foreign markets and a technologically advanced economy — neither of which injure Palestine’s finances. They say the land was rightfully theirs, according to the declaration disseminated by the UN, and that many European Jewish people sought out Israel as a place of refuge after the Holocaust. Because Israel has been closely intertwined with Europe since its emergence, they argue that their statehood achieved great success in the European market that no other Middle Eastern country previously had.

A decade before the initiation of conflict, Israel experienced record-high economic growth from capital inflows from Europe and America. Even their military is sustained by foreign investments; in 2016, the US pledged to provide $38 billion in military aid to Israel. Israel has since maintained auspicious relationships with these international markets that have been salient in funding their prosperous economy. Though they continue to do so, its global beneficiaries allowed for early investment into the Israeli economy that paved the way for industrial development. Manufacturing of high-tech products has become a dominant contributor to their GDP. This industry continues to grow and employs 25% of the industrial workforce. Due to their scarce resources and abundance of capital, Israel has developed into an internationally recognized technology-advanced economy with worldwide clientele and exports.

According to Israel, it is through their historical relations with foreign markets that has allowed for a domineering economy to evolve, rather than capitalizing on the displaced Palestinian population. Israeli and Palestinian arguments have reached an impasse with neither side making strides in reaching a mutually beneficial settlement. Ergo, restructuring the debate would be favorable to advance the conversation. Looking at that land through an ecological rather than strictly commercial lens is one method of reframing the controversial quandary. 

Analyzing the issue through an environmental lens highlights the limited resources available within the Palestine-Israel conflict. Palestinian land, as a result of the dispute, attempts to sustain a vast population despite being tightly constricted by Israel. In the Gaza Strip, the population density is estimated at 5,154 persons/km2, compared to a lower concentration in the West Bank, with 519 persons/km2 in 2016. Massive displaced Muslim communities were foisted onto relatively small territories, thereby straining the already-scarce aggregate of natural resources available from the somewhat sterile environment. Gaza is one of the most densely populated places on Earth, and forcing flocks of people to migrate into that crowded space has taken a toll on the ground and its resources, namely cultivable land.

While the farming sector in Israel accounts for 3% of the Gross Domestic Product, in Palestine it accounts for 22-30% which also employs 15% of the Palestinian workforce. The agriculture sector of the Palestinian economy is undoubtedly an indispensable source of revenue and employment for Israel as it funds an extensive amount of Israel’s food supply. However, overcrowding and over-farming depletes the land of much of its potential to continue providing raw materials, like wood and food, for both sides. The average of actual cultivated land in the West Bank has shrunk by more than 30% of the area cultivated in 1965. With limited access to fertilizers, irrigation pipes, and other harvesting tools, Palestinian resources are limited in combatting this depletion.

Since the agricultural sector is a major employer for the Palestinian workforce, the unemployment rate would climb if the land were to become bereft of arable crops. There are unintended ramifications within the underpinnings of stripping away the natural environment. For instance, deforestation increases CO2 levels in the air by removing a vital carbon sink thereby inflaming the ecological catastrophe promulgated by the over-farming. Unpacking these environmental consequences cultivated by the current economic conflict gives more insight into the dilemma. It shines a light on a different angle of the argument and could stimulate further analysis to push the stalemate forward. Israel  allowing Palestine to grow high yield crops that have high import substitution value on local market and a high export value, develop a more advanced irrigation system, and increase access to fertilizer would help Palestinian agriculture enormously. Despite that, Israel counters that they play no role in this environmental reframing. 

Israel contends that the country is detached from Palestine’s environmental collapse and would gain nothing from mitigating their problem. Israel, a paragon “green” country, reportedly has no hand in the natural disaster in Palestine. Palestine’s water pollution problem is a result of over-pumping of aquifers which has resulted in seepage of seawater into the groundwater. Israel, as previously established, has the technological power to help, but is dubious of it being effective since, according to Israel, Palestine rejects any form of cooperation or recognition of Israel. Israel would also seemingly have nothing to gain from such a venture; aid to Palestine would cost Israel money which would only benefit Palestine’s self-interest. These arguments about lack of  responsibility and a needed catalyst to pursue alleviating Palestine’s affliction, however, are untrue since Israel has a direct hand in Palestine’s environmental problems.  

For example, Israel exacerbates Palestine’s environmental issues by indirectly polluting their water. Palestine over-pumped its groundwater in order  to fertilize its increasingly desolate land that was, as discussed previously, tied to Israel’s economy. Thus, Israel played a role in exhausting the aquifer to fund their agricultural sector. And while Palestinian pipes also contribute to the spoiled water, their irrigation network is archaic compared to Israel’s advanced technology because Israel’s stronghold handicaps any development. Israel is sewn into the water contamination problem by other threads too. For example, Israeli garbage and toxic waste is transported to Palestinian territory. The continued unsustainable disposal of solid waste that results in the percolation of toxic substances which leads into the groundwater

Israel has a massive carbon footprint that’s being imposed onto Palestine, meaning the Jewish state is exploiting Palestine both economically and environmentally without facing the consequences. Israel capitalizes on the water contamination by selling water to Palestine produced through Israel’s construction of sustainable energy sources. Palestinian purchases of water from Israel totaled 70 million cubic meters of water annually as of 2016 and are only projected to rise. Palestine’s economic autonomy is endangered as it becomes increasingly reliant on Israel’s water supply. The water off of Gaza’s coast is fraught with chemicals, damaging the wildlife and industries that profit off the coastal ecosystem, such as fishing. While Israel may not be the sole cause of this water pollution, their involvement cannot be ignored. Israel not only plays a part in Palestine’s water contamination but also in preventing Palestine from developing renewable energy measures. 

Eco-friendly initiatives would benefit Palestine, but Israel impedes any prospect of construction of such sustainable energy resources. Palestinians have attempted to produce clean energy as a source of revenue and to fuel day-to-day activities in an eco-friendly way, but many efforts to do so have been forestalled. The sun may be free, but the technology is not, and Palestinians say their ability to import solar panels has been hampered by Israeli border controls. Palestine holds the ideal landscape for solar panels, which could be planted on buildings and the ground to produce a self-sufficient form of clean energy. A few panels are currently deployed in various villages to generate electricity that may otherwise be deficient.

However, Israeli government control prevents  Palestinian territories from establishing and maintaining a sustainable energy network. “Israel is using the environment as a weapon against the Palestinians,” said Jamal Jumah, director of the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON) . Israel has curtailed installment and production of renewable energy, even though it would be invaluable for rebuilding Palestine’s ecosystem and their private sector, as the construction and maintenance of these energy sources would require a workforce.

Reframing the standstill altercation as an epidemic for the ecosystem would benefit Israeli and Palestinian economic interests upon evaluating sustainable energy modes of production. Ergo, the restructuring would become salient in stimulating conversation. Renewable energy would strengthen Palestine’s industry and independence from Israel, who would also benefit from an environmental reframing. Israel can avail the technology needed to produce the green country Palestine could become and generate profit from the sales. As has already been established, agriculture in Palestine contributes to the food supply in Israel. The water contamination from Gaza contaminates the sea off the coast of Israel and improving its quality also benefits the Jewish state. Above all, the environment is a pressing issue of shared concern for Israel and Palestine because their natural resources are interwoven. 

The Palestine-Israel conflict impacts the regions’ economics: Palestinians allege that Israel is to blame for their poor financial development while Israel contends that their commercial success is unrelated to Palestine’s debasement. If the conversation were to be restructured through an environmental perspective by analyzing agriculture, water pollution, and sustainable energy, the stalemate could be transgressed to the benefit of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations.

It is a strenuous endeavor to fabricate a solution from a century-long conflict, but as of yet, an economic lens for peace has failed. Clearly, new ideas are needed. If the conflict can be placated in any way through an environmental reframing, any step toward more civil relations would serve both parties. 

Problems and Answers , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply