Climate Justice During the War in Palestine-Sea Witch Botanicals

Climate Justice During the War in Palestine

“As environmental defenders, we must center human life at the core of our advocacy.”

—Rania Harrara, environmentalist

Since October 7, 2023, Israel’s siege and bombardment of Palestinian land and people has spurred a severely urgent humanitarian and environmental crisis, with experts naming Israel’s military “one of the most destructive in history”: In just the first month, the IDF had already dropped a volume of explosives equivalent to two nuclear bombs over the Gaza Strip.

At the time of writing, over 32,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, including more than 12,000 children. Nearly 75,000 more are injured. At least 17,000 children have been orphaned or separated from family, and some 2 million people have been internally displaced.

These attacks are showing significant environmental ramifications as well. Staggeringly high carbon emissions, destruction of native ecology, and pollution of air, water, and soil are just the beginnings of environmental injustice on Palestinian land. The damage incurred will have lasting impacts and be felt for decades to come—not just locally, but beyond Palestinian borders as well, especially considering military pollution and biodiversity loss will directly impact Israeli environmental health and human quality of life too.

A land and its people are inextricably linked. For indigenous Palestinians who have lived in their region for thousands of years, freedom from the decades-long Israeli occupation means more than just a ceasefire: It means environmental justice, too. Read on to learn details of the environmental impacts of Israel’s attacks, how this connects to the global climate justice movement, and what you can do to help.

Header image by Sameh Rahmi via Getty Images.

Environmental Impacts of the War in Palestine

“All [this] is just one massive environmental injustice because it disproportionately exposes the people there to unsafe and unhealthy living conditions—not just now, but for years to come.”

—Alaina Woods, climate communicator

Israel has been accused of committing crimes on par with genocide. Now, many are calling their attacks an ecocide as well, which Al Jazeera defines as “mass damage or destruction to the environment to the detriment of life, committed with full knowledge of the risks.” An ecocide wreaks havoc on the natural environment and its ecosystems, yet its consequences are experienced by people as well, with access to clean air, water, food, and sanitation extremely restricted.

Carbon Emissions

Fire and smoke erupt after Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 14 December 2023. Photograph:

Fire and smoke erupt after Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on 14 December 2023. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Researchers estimate around 281,000 metric tonnes of CO2 were emitted in just the first sixty days of Israel’s attacks in Palestine. Climate communicator Alaina Woods says this is “the equivalent of 165,000 tons of coal—which is more than the annual emissions of the 20 most climate-vulnerable nations.” You can also compare this to the emissions from 75 coal-powered plants running for a year.

Woods explains these wartime emissions come from “manufacturing and transporting weapons, exploding bombs and other artillery, flying jets and drones, and driving tanks and other military vehicles.”

It is challenging to find data on how these numbers are changing in real time, but now at close to six months after October 7, we know these emissions have increased significantly, perhaps as much as threefold.

@thegarbagequeen War and conflict are environmental injustices, and the genocide in Gaza is no exception. In the first 60 days of their attack on Gaza, Israel emitted an equivalent of 165,000 tons of coal – which is more than the annual emissions of the 20 most climate-vulnerable nations. Their constant bombing and shelling has also led to air, water, and soil pollution as well as nearly 60% of the structures in Gaza being damaged or destroyed. This is disproportionately exposing Palestinians, and the environment they call home, to unsafe and unhealthy living conditions – not just now but for years to come. That’s why the climate movement cannot ignore what’s going on in Gaza and every other place around the world experiencing conflict because it’s bad for both the people and the planet. #ClimateChange #ClimateCrisis #ClimateJustice #EnvironmentalJustice ♬ original sound - Alaina Wood

Pollution from Infrastructure Loss

Beyond carbon emissions, pollution of the air, water, and soil from bombing and shelling are converting already ecologically vulnerable land into uninhabitable territory for humans as well as wildlife. With dust and debris from fallen buildings covering the air and ground, “Israel’s military offensive in Gaza is leaving a new layer of toxic chemicals in its soil, adding to those left behind after the many wars that it’s waged before,” says Adrian Finighan in a segment for Al Jazeera English. 

The UN estimates Israel dropped 42 bombs an hour on Gaza during the first few weeks of the war. The devastation presently extends to more than half of Gaza’s homes (360,000 units); 392 educational facilities; and 267 places of worship. Additionally, only 12 out of 35 hospitals in Gaza are “even partially functional,” with “extremely limited access to medical supplies.”

Israeli troops walk past destroyed buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli troops walk past destroyed buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City. Photograph: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Many of these buildings were also equipped with solar panels, as Israel’s prior 16-year blockade of the Gaza Strip limited electricity availability to around eight hours a day on average. This made solar energy a form of autonomy for Palestinians. 

Moreover, makeshift landfills are now overflowing. “Over one million now live in the same space,” says Omar Matar, director of the Health and Environment Department in Khan Younis. “Solid garbage produced per day increased from 150 tons to over 450 tons. With limited resources, the municipality could not handle this increased volume.” Matar explains these conditions create health risks for people as well as the environment “due to the foul odors, insects, rodents, and pollutants.” 

Cleanup of this military pollution will take decades. Alaina Woods notes that efforts to rebuild the estimated 60% of structures damaged or destroyed in Gaza will have negative impacts on climate change “since construction is responsible for around 25% of global emissions.”

Sanitation & Water Treatment

A boy carries water bottles and a plastic jerrycan at a refugee camp in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Wednesday.Bilal Khaled / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A boy carries water bottles and a plastic jerrycan at a refugee camp in Khan Younis, Gaza, on Wednesday. Photograph: Bilal Khaled / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Even prior to the war, access to safe drinking water was extremely limited. “Gaza had suffered from polluted underground water,” says Nada Majdalani, Palestinian director of EcoPeace Middle East. She says up to 97% of the aquifer was unsuitable for human consumption, with fuel shortages impairing solid waste and wastewater treatment. Israel’s attacks have exacerbated these pre-existing issues, pushing Palestinians to “the verge of environmental catastrophe.”

Across Gaza now, sanitation, water treatment, and desalination systems have been destroyed, with 83% of groundwater wells not operational. Sewage is flooding the streets or being dumped directly into the sea. Corpses accumulate in tightly populated encampment areas. Out of desperation, people are drinking dirty, brackish water, even though it may be contaminated with disease. Majdalani notes an increase in “parasitic infections” and diseases such as hepatitis, chicken pox, kidney problems, and cholera among shelters in Palestine.

“Every aspect of life in Gaza is affected by some form of pollution, and with the start of the rainy season, the threat to people and the environment from disease, acid rain, and contaminated water is only set to worsen,” says Cara Legg for Al Jazeera.

Ecological Destruction

Airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus fall over the Gaza city port, October 11, 2023.  © 2023 Mohammed Adeb/AFP via Getty Images

Airbursts of artillery-fired white phosphorus fall over the Gaza city port, October 11, 2023. Photograph: Mohammed Adeb/AFP via Getty Images

Shortly after the initial attacks by Hamas on October 7, Israeli forces retaliated with the illegal use of white phosphorus, as verified by Human Rights Watch. They explain that white phosphorus “is a chemical substance, dispersed in artillery shells, bombs, and rockets, that ignites when exposed to oxygen.” While its light and “thick smoke” can serve military purposes, it also “inflicts horrific injuries” such as severe burns prone to infection that frequently expose bone. 

White phosphorus “not only causes severe burns, but can remain in the soil for years, causing long-term damage,” reports Cara Legg. This residue will also fall in the rain Palestinians might collect as drinking water.

What’s more, Israel’s military has begun to flood Gaza’s tunnel network with seawater, saying, “This is a significant tool in combating the threat of Hamas’ underground terrorist infrastructure.” This doesn’t only risk contaminating groundwater supply, causing economically irreparable damage for decades; Gaza’s thin, sandy layers of soil also risk collapse under the water’s pressure, which could cause buildings and infrastructure to cave in.

Alaina Woods says, “That air, water, and soil pollution can make things like growing food, supplying drinking water, and restoring ecosystems not only difficult, but sometimes impossible.”

Israel’s intentional destruction of Palestinian ecology started long before their most recent attacks: In fact, their occupation had already completely altered the landscape. In a 2015 article for The Ecologist, Dr. César Chelala writes that “over a million olive trees and hundreds of thousands of fruit trees have been destroyed in Palestinian lands” in the last 40 years alone to make way for Israeli settlements and infrastructure. The olive tree and its oil, symbolic of life and peace, are “an essential aspect of Palestinian culture, heritage, and identity,” as well as livelihood.

Israel is also known for their reforestation efforts as a means to honor diasporic Jewish folks, having planted over 260 million trees over more than 250,000 acres. Unfortunately, environmental experts say these trees “do more harm than good,” as they are non-native trees planted in naturally unforested areas where they aren’t needed.

Céline Semaan, intersectional climate justice advocate and founder of the Slow Factory, explains that these trees make the land vulnerable to forest fires. She says, “The environment is not suited to sustain these monocrops in the first place,” and stresses that this form of green colonialism endangers human and wildlife alike. 

What You Can Do for Palestine

“I think it’s important that we understand that the climate crisis arose from ideologies of dehumanization and hierarchy and dispossession of land, in particular from colonialism in the past and settler colonialism in the present…a lot of groups have realized that none of us are free until all of us are free, and that actually through climate justice we have an opportunity to create a better, liberated, and transformed world. But, for us to do that, we cannot decide to make anyone disposable or to leave anyone behind.”

—Mikaela Loach, author and climate justice activist

As we have seen, climate justice solutions are essential for meaningfully addressing the crisis in Palestine. Likewise, climate justice solutions must include humanitarian struggles in order to create effective, resilient change. This is why we cannot leave Palestine out of the global environmental movement.

Below are a few things you can do to take action for intersectional climate justice in Palestine. If you have any other actions or resources to share, please leave us a comment.

  • Advocate for a permanent ceasefire solution. A temporary ceasefire is not enough to adequately address the environmental and humanitarian violations in Palestine. Use this link to send a letter to your representatives, or set up daily automated emails here.
  • Donate. Humanitarian aid is urgently needed in Palestine. We recommend donating to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), or to Mansour Shouman and Mostafa Mohamed via GoFundMe, as this money is used directly on the ground in Gaza. You might also consider checking out the Climate Justice Alliance and giving them your support.
  • Use your voice. Keep talking about what’s going on in Palestine. These events are not normal. We must keep Palestine at the forefront of public consciousness as we continue to advocate for meaningful solutions.
  • Educate yourself and others. Learn about the complex historical context of the crisis, such as the creation of Israel or the formation of Hamas, and share educational resources like this one with people in your community.
  • Create for Palestine. Process how you feel by making art or writing poetry. You might also consider planting a tree or garden plant to represent Palestine and your relationship with it—something you can physically nourish amid your advocacy work wherever you are in the world.
  • Radically imagine a positive future. Whether in the form of prayer, personal contemplation, or community healing, one of the most important things we can do for Palestine is to visualize an end to the conflict, as well as a regenerative post-war period. What does a kind, just, and prosperous future look like in your eyes? A better world is possible—and although it will take painstaking work, sometimes, we just need to see it first.
  • Resource Library for Environmental Justice in Palestine

    Learn

    Environmental Justice in Palestine Tool-Kit by Intersectional Environmentalist

    The Palestine Academy

    Gaza, explained by Vox

    How Israel Was Created by Al Jazeera

    How is Palestine connected to the climate justice movement? by Al Jazeera

    Let’s Talk Palestine podcast

    The Plants of Palestine by Earthrise Studio

    The 'Desert' was Already Blooming: Palestine, Colonialism, and Global Climate Justice by Shireen Tawil

    Donate & Take Action

    Palestine Children’s Relief Fund

    GoFundMe: Direct aid in Gaza, by Mansour Shouman and Mostafa Mohamed

    UNRWA (or, for US citizens: UNRWA USA for tax-deductible donations)

    Doctors Without Borders

    Email Automation: Ceasefire & Stop Sending Arms

    Anti-Genocide Action Checklist

    Follow

    Bisan Owda @wizard_bisan1

    Intersectional Environmentalist @intersectionalenvironmentalist

    Let’s Talk Palestine @letstalkpalestine

    Mansour Shouman @mansourshouman7

    Middle East Eye @middleeasteye

    Noor Harazeen @noor.harazeen

    The Slow Factory @theslowfactory

    Translating Gaza @translating_gaza

    Zero Waste Palestine @zerowastepalestine

    Zeena Ismail @zeenaismail

    Leave a comment

    Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.