Israel’s Ecological Apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Israel’s Ecological Apartheid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory

[Ahmed Abofoul is an Independent Legal Researcher at Al-Haq’s Legal Research and Advocacy Department.]


Whether in the Americas, Africa, Australia or elsewhere, colonialism and its practices of domination, conquest, settlement, and exploitation of land and natural resources of the indigenous people has ruptured many ecosystems around the world. Some have accurately argued that colonists owe their success, in part, to such practices. In this regard, the situation in Palestine is not an exception. Israel’s colonial practices in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), especially its illegal settlement enterprise, has catastrophic consequences on the environment. Nevertheless, in light of the gravity and intensity of Israel’s violations of the Palestinian people’s basic human rights, such environmental aspects often do not get enough attention.

Recently, Al-Haq, a Palestinian NGO based in Ramallah was devasted by the death of senior legal researcher and advocacy officer, Suha Jarrar, a trailblazing Palestinian human rights defender. Her ground-breaking work and research contributions focused, inter alia, on how Israel’s settler-colonial policies and practices impacted the environment in Palestine. In commemoration of her invaluable work, the piece continues Suha’s work to give voice to the resilient Palestinian people, particularly women, who are courageously enduring the harmful environmental effects of Israel’s prolonged occupation and apartheid.

Since its occupation in 1967, Israel’s ecological destruction and restructuring of the oPt’s topography has been orchestrated militarily, with the objective of establishing and maintaining more settlements in the oPt. This article provides a non-comprehensive overview of the ecological destruction of various kinds, especially that affecting agricultural land and deriving from, inter alia, the construction and expansion of settlements. Further, this article argues that such ecological destruction is also serving as a tool that facilitates Israel’s apartheid system imposed on the Palestinians. Notably, this article does not delve into the academic debate regarding the definition of ecocide as an international crime. Therefore, ‘ecocide’ is used generally and within the meaning of “severe damage to the natural environment” as a war crime, as stipulated in Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute.

Settler-Colonialism – A Land-Centred Ideology

According to prominent theories of settler-colonial relations, the ideology of settler-colonialism is a land-centred project that aims at creating a new state or expanding an existent one in the settled land. Further, it has been suggested that to achieve its goal of creating a “settler identity and territorial belonging,” settler-colonialism is greatly contingent upon the notion of space. Hence, settler-colonialists have always deliberately altered the ecological conditions of the ‘space’ that they have settled.

Evidently, and according to its ‘pioneers,’ Israel’s Zionism is profoundly consistent with land settlement and territoriality (p.13-17). Take the words of its founding father, Theodore Herzl, as an example when he said in 1896, “[i]f I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct” (p.5). Further, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, wrote in 1937 that Palestine “contains vast colonization potential which the Arabs neither need nor are qualified (because of their lack of need) to exploit”. Zionism’s territoriality and disregard for the native population is the reason that scholars have positioned it as a settler-colonial project. Such settler-colonial nature of Zionism is even more evident today, especially through Israel’s ever-expanding settlements enterprise in the oPt.

Devastating Effect on Nature and Health

At the outset of Israel’s creation, there has been a consistent elimination and destruction of any signs of Palestinian presence (p.2). To achieve this objective, Palestinian villages were destroyed and “native trees (such as oaks, carobs, and hawthorns) and agricultural crops (olives, figs, and almonds) were systematically uprooted and replaced by European pine trees.” Such practice aimed at concealing the remnants of Palestinian heritage on the land (p.15). Notably, pine trees have been strategically chosen to “make the landscape look less alien, more European” and “to obliterate all physical traces” of Palestinian heritage (p.90). However, the Palestinian indigenous farmers have always considered pine trees as counterproductive for their environment as they “consume large amounts of water causing droughts.” (p.2). Such planted trees, “reduced biodiversity and harmed the local environment”. Moreover, such trees are “very susceptible to fire because of their resins”. Specialists have noted that this is why fires are now “a common occurrence in the areas in which they were planted”, such as the latest wildfire in Jerusalem. Notably, since Israel illegally and partially annexed the city in 1949, and fully annexed the city in 1967, it has extensively altered its nature and landscapes in favour of creating new illegal settlements. 

Since its occupation, Israel’s ecocide practices were not limited to trees or landscapes. For instance, the Israeli government has provided tax incentives to Israeli companies with the highest polluting rates to move to the West Bank. For example, in 1987, Geshuri, an Israeli pesticide and fertilizer manufacturer, moved to an area nearby Tulkarm in the West Bank. Al-Haq documented the devastating effect of this factory on the resident, nature and corps in this area. Moreover, during its field visit to the site, Al-Haq documented the presence of European branded products inside the factory complex.

Another example would be the genotoxic effects of Israeli industrial settlements pollutants on residents of Bruqeen village in the northern West bank. According to specialists, such effects include damaging DNA and chromosomes, which led to “increasing cases of miscarriage, cancer, and congenital birth defects”. In addition, the pollution of the air and water in that area has also caused, among other serious diseases, respiratory illness and gastrointestinal failures. Other Israeli practices continue to cause severe damage to the natural environment and the heath of the Palestinian population across the oPt. For example, Israel continues to send its waste, especially from its illegal settlements to Palestinian areas in the oPt. Israeli settlements generate around 145,000 tons of domestic waste daily. In 2016 alone, around 83 million cubic meters of wastewater were pumped throughout the West Bank.

The Ecological Aggression on the Gaza Strip

The Gaza Strip (Gaza) has always been known for its plains that were lush with citrus orchards. A strip of roughly 365 squared kilometres with around 2 million inhabitants, it is one of the most densely populated areas worldwide. Gaza lies under the Israeli military blockade since 2007, and is often described as the world’s largest open-air prison. In August 2012, the United Nations predicted that Gaza will not be liveable by 2020. While engaging in the peace processes in the 1990s, Israel’s bulldozers have systematically destroyed orange and olives groves along the fence with Gaza. Israel has also enforced a “buffer zone” that extends up to 300 meters along the fence with Gaza, which has left most of Gaza’s agricultural lands inaccessible for Palestinian farmers. In addition, those who could still access their land close to this zone, often face other serious challenges. 

Since the closure, Gaza suffered several Israeli military operations that have catastrophic consequences on the population and environment. According to the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network report after the 2014 operation, the environmental impact included, inter alia, affecting air quality from buildings blown up by Israeli bombs, the destruction of water treatment facilities, damaging the soil of agricultural lands that left it “either completely infertile or produce significantly lower crop yields than before”. Moreover, the report showed that farmers could face “delayed environmental impacts of the war” (p.9). Notably, the report  also showed that Israel is accused of “using many weapons that are possibly illegal,” including, the usage of “[f]lechettes artillery or rocket rounds, white phosphorous, Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME), and Depleted uranium (DU). These bombs may cause chemical or even radioactive material air pollution” (p.2).

Furthermore, this operation has damaged the Palestinian Water Authority’s wastewater treatment plant, which resulted in untreated waste being dumped into the sea. In 2018, the UN warned that the water sanitation crisis in Gaza may cause disease outbreaks and possible epidemics. According to the UN, based on the World Health Organization (WHO) standards  97% of Gaza water is “unfit for human consumption,” mainly due to damages caused by Israel’s military operations. In May 2021, Israel’s military operations in Gaza damaged water infrastructure and pipes serving “at least 800,000 people.”

In 2019, Forensic Architecture issued a visual investigation entitled “Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza” which showed that “[s]ince 2014, the clearing and bulldozing of agricultural and residential lands by the Israel military close to the eastern border of Gaza has been complemented by the unannounced aerial spraying of crop-killing herbicides”. The Israeli military sprays a combination of three herbicides: Glyphosate, Oxyfluorfen (Oxygal) and Diuron (Diurex), some of which were classified by the WHO’s Cancer Research Agency as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. The investigation also showed that this practice “has not only destroyed entire swaths of formerly arable land along the border fence, but also crops and farmlands hundreds of metres deep into Palestinian territory, resulting in the loss of livelihoods for Gazan farmers”. According to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry, since 2014, around 14,000 dunams of agricultural land in Gaza has been damaged by the spraying. Further, crops like spinach, okra, corn, parsley, wheat, peas and barley all were irreparably damaged.

Notably, in 2014, the Israeli courts denied the Palestinian farmers any compensation for their crops that were damaged by Israel’s herbicide spraying. However, shortly after, on the other side of the fence, crops on an Israeli farm also sustained damage from the military spraying of herbicides, except the farm received about $16,000 from the Israeli Ministry of Defense under a compromise agreement.

Settler-Colonial Ecocide – Another Apartheid Policy

As eloquently put by Professor Dugard, “[t]he colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem continues unabated and increasingly it is argued that Israel’s settlement enterprise has resulted in a system akin to that of apartheid in which a discriminatory legal order favours settlers above Palestinians”. Indeed, Israel’s colonial settlement enterprise has facilitated its apartheid system, including the institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination that are imposed to maintain the domination of illegally transferred settlers above the indigenous Palestinian population. Take Israel’s bypass roads system as an example. Israel has built an extensive network of these roads including other infrastructures serving its settlers only, while Palestinians are prohibited from using these roads. Notably, when the Palestinians pave their own roads, Israel demolishes them. Any buildings or trees within 75 meters from these bypass roads are bulldozed and declared closed military zones. Consequently, Israel confiscates more land used by Palestinians for agriculture, pasture or leisure.

This disparity between the settlers that were illegally transferred to the oPt and the indigenous Palestinian people, whether regarding land control or the quality of life and services, is a result of the disparity in access to other natural resources, including water. This is yet another illustration of Israel’s apartheid. Notably, Israeli officials have deliberately “ignored facts and selectively presented falsified or inaccurate data to serve their political interests in the Jordan River while catastrophically impacting Palestinian access to water”. As a result, 91% of the total water of the West Bank is expropriated for Israeli settler use.

Israel’s apartheid has resulted in what has been described as “Ecological Apartheid” or “Climate Apartheid,” which “encompasses the hardening of borders and restrictions on the movements of those affected by environmental and social disruptions” (p.410). Further, some have accurately noted that the “precarity of various forms environmental, economic, social, political –due to climate change is not only uneven, but socially and historically produced. At the same time, privilege is secured for some populations that can insulate themselves from climate hazards and precure (often violently) necessary resources”.


Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise in the oPt is illegal. Moreover, Israel’s ecocide in the oPt is yet another policy of its apartheid imposed on the Palestinian people, which may also constitute the commission of the war crime of “severe damage to the natural environment” as stipulated in Article 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute. Further, Israel’s apartheid practices in this regard are aimed at leaving millions of Palestinians vulnerable and confined to small enclaves, maintained by its draconian prolonged belligerent occupation rule, and facing alone a reality of dwindling resources orchestrated by Israel’s settler-colonial practices.

In the author’s view, such a situation resonates well with a scene from Aimé Césaire’s play, “A Tempest of 1969”, which is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” from a post-colonial perspective, in which Caliban, son of Sycorax and black slave, tells Prospero, his ‘master’ while discussing the death of Caliban’s mother, the tree god, Sycorax:

Dead or alive, she was my mother, and I won’t deny her! Anyhow, you only think she’s dead because you think the earth itself is dead…It’s so much simpler that way! Dead, you can walk on it, pollute it, you can tread upon it with the steps of a conqueror. I respect the earth, because I know that it is alive, and I know that Sycorax is alive.

At Al-Haq, we know in our hearts and minds that our beloved Suha –a firm human and environmental rights defender, who also believed that the struggles against toxic masculine dominance must be addressed at the same level as the struggle against oppression and settler-colonialism– is, as our earth, still alive.

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Environmental Law, Featured, General, Middle East
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