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Climate Change Is Going to Hit Palestine Particularly Hard

Global warming will exacerbate the Israel-Palestine conflict. But the conflict will also exacerbate the effects of global warming.

Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images
Palestinian children cool off during a heatwave at Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in May 2020.

Israel just made it through a brutal, record-breaking heat wave. Temperatures hit 105 degrees Fahrenheit in Tel Aviv, 98 degrees in Jerusalem, and 113 degrees in Jericho. The government had to lift the requirement for masks and suspend many schools yet again, just after post-coronavirus reopenings. The scorching temperatures caused
record electricity usage. Wildfires broke out in the south of the country. The elderly suffered heatstroke, and three people died. This all happened in May: the fifth-hottest month of the year in Israel.

The climate crisis is coming hard and fast for the entire Middle East. Israel will see its summer extended by two months, and temperatures will reach 122 degrees. Precipitation will decrease by as much as 25 percent, a terrifying jump in water scarcity for an already arid region. And while there will be less precipitation overall, when it falls, it will come in storms, causing floods, storm surges, and heavy infrastructure damage. But in a pattern likely to play out throughout the world, these disasters will not be felt equally, across all sectors of society. Instead, by and large, Palestinians will face the worst of the region’s many coming climate disasters.

“We have quite good knowledge of how the climate will evolve in the region,” Assaf Hochman, a climate researcher at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, told me. In coming years, Israel will see streams go dry, more forest fires, more invasive species, and an increased risk of disease outbreak, both infectious and vector-borne. The cost of agriculture will rise due to crop deterioration; increased pest spread; and damage from storms, floods, and droughts. “It’s not an exaggeration that it will be unsafe to go outside in the summer. And the political context in the region is making it difficult to adapt.”

Research by Michael Mason, the Director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, shows that Israeli and Palestinian reports on climate change have almost entirely ignored climate change’s role as a threat multiplier in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—and the conflict’s role as a threat multiplier in the climate crisis. But there’s ample research showing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will make the impacts of the climate crisis more severe. Specifically, the Israeli military occupation is already exacerbating climate-related resource shortages for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights.

“Even though climate change is indiscriminate in the way it treats territory, the human effects of policy mean that Israelis and Palestinians will experience the effects of climate change in hugely disproportionate ways,” Zena Agha, policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, told me. “The Israeli government presides over a stratified system of rights and access.”

This stratified system plays out the most clearly in the case of water. Per the Oslo Accords, 80 percent of joint water aquifer resources in Palestine are designated for Israeli use; Israeli settlers, independent Palestinian human rights organization Al-Haq estimated in a 2013 report, consume six times as much water as the West Bank’s 2.9 million Palestinian residents. Israel controls water in the West Bank through the Joint Water Committee, which Human Rights Watch says has a track record of confiscating equipment and denying permits to Palestinians who want to construct water infrastructure.

Matters are worse in the Gaza Strip, where 97 percent of water is unfit for human consumption and contaminated water is the leading cause of child deaths. The Israeli military controls what resources go in and out of the Gaza Strip—and many essential items for building water infrastructure are considered dangerous materials and prohibited. Increased water scarcity in Gaza could be fatal for many.

Water isn’t the only natural resource affected by Israeli occupation. Israel’s military prevents residents in the Gaza Strip from using the land next to Israel’s militarized fence, which makes up 20 percent of Gaza’s arable land. Explosives dropped on Gaza in 2014 damaged soil and reduced agricultural productivity. In the West Bank and Golan Heights, Israeli military and settlers have uprooted and burned 800,000 olive trees in the process of seizing land for new settlements. Israelis, too, have seen already vulnerable farmland destroyed by fire kites sent from Gaza.

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are uniquely vulnerable, but Bedouin in unrecognized villages and 40,000 refugees from Sudan and Eritrea also lack access to government infrastructure and support—something that has become conspicuous during the current pandemic. And although Israeli technology has paved a path for conducting agriculture in desert climates, increasing climate pressure will threaten even well-adapted farmers.

“People talk a lot about climate here,” Awdah Hathaleen, an activist from the West Bank told Al-Monitor. “They’re scared. We get hotter summers and colder winters. Every year gets worse and worse.” His community cannot build houses without permission from the Israeli military. As a result, they live mainly in tents—a particularly bad situation when snow falls in the winter.

Palestinian scientists have proposed water-harvesting projects, land reclamation projects, and groundwater projects to help reclaim water and adapt to climate change. Organizations such as the Palestine Environmental NGOs Network work on community initiatives to provide sustainable electricity, strengthen community forest and water management, and campaign against Israel’s construction of illegal settlements and roads.

Despite Israel’s status as a leader in green technology, the Israeli government has offered no serious policy response to climate change, per a report by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. The country has failed to meet its low-bar Paris Agreement targets. (The targets are so modest that Israel could increase its overall emissions while still meeting them.) In fact, most Israelis aren’t particularly concerned about the climate crisis in the first place.

In a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center, Israel was found to be the least concerned about climate change out of 26 countries surveyed. Just 38 percent of Israeli respondents said they saw climate change as a major threat. Israel’s National Adaptation Plan for climate change, originally proposed in 2009, was finally passed in July 2018. The plan largely focuses on the military’s strategic needs, while lacking fundamental elements such as a strategy for using green energy, instead putting forward a plan to shift to natural gas. (Natural gas still produces significant carbon dioxide emissions.) Politicians have rarely talked about climate change amid Israel’s ongoing political chaos, following three elections that failed to produce a governing coalition. As in Palestine, most climate change advocacy work in Israel comes from private nongovernmental organizations such as the aforementioned Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

Israeli climate activists are frustrated. “The government hasn’t been doing nearly enough,” said Michael Bäcklund, an Israeli climate activist, striker, and organizer with Strike 4 Future Israel. “We have been saying that climate policies in Europe are not perfect and not enough, but they’re nonexistent in Israel.” The problem extends to public discourse more generally, he added: “The public doesn’t really understand what climate change is. Many think it’s related to the ozone layer. And the media doesn’t connect natural disasters like floods, which have been occurring much more frequently in the past 10 to 15 years, to the climate crisis.”

Unlike the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority lacks the capacity to solve water infrastructure or any other environmental problems. “The PA is poorly equipped to support long-term adaptation,” Agha wrote in a 2019 blog post for the Palestine-oriented policy think tank Al Shabaka. “The PA developed a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy in 2011. The plan cites the estimated cost of water and agriculture adaptation at $1 billion and $369.3 million, respectively—far beyond existing fiscal capacity.” These fiscal limitations are worsened by the Israeli occupation. The authority has said it loses $350 million per year due to Israel siphoning Palestinian tax, aid, and trade revenues.

“It’s important to understand that climate outcomes in Palestine are a set of intentional, structural policies,” said Agha. “When climate change bites, it will exacerbate and multiply the preexisting inequalities already in place.”

Despite governments being alternately unwilling and unable to act, scientists from the region and from Europe have collaborated—for example at the Arava Institute, a regional climate change adaptation center—on developing policy proposals for both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “It won’t help the Israeli government or Palestinian governments if they adapt on their own,” Hochman said. “The self-interest of Israel is to collaborate on climate change issues.” Meanwhile, Agha said that the first step the international community should take to counter the effects of climate change in Palestine is to exert pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion.

In the past two years, a climate youth movement has taken shape in Israel, with dozens of large-scale climate strikes across the country, capturing global attention. “Our message to the Israeli government is that we need to start acting now,” Bäcklund told me. Israeli climate activist groups, he said, refrain from commenting on the Israel-Palestinian conflict directly or talking about politics in group meetings, which have both Israeli and Palestinian members. “We’re just trying to unite both parties of the political arena to this one cause. Climate change truly does not know borders,” he said.

That’s the approach many seeking to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change are taking. But while climate change won’t depend on borders, the extent to which individuals feel its effects very much will. It’s a paradox that, without governments taking action, could prove deadly for many people.