Though the ceasefire has ended the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip, Palestine is still a humanitarian catastrophe, one with a rising ecological toll that will compound human suffering for years.
Human Rights Watch issued a report last month that stated that Israel has created a legally defined apartheid state. The group referred to Palestine as an “open-air prison,” a description that has been echoed by a number of groups and individuals from the Norwegian Refugee Council to the former humanitarian head for the United Nations (who added it was the “world’s largest”). In a climate-constrained world, ecological damage of warfare and restricted access to resources prevents Palestinians from rebuilding infrastructure, let alone preparing for a hotter future.
“It is a catastrophic situation in Gaza,” Abeer Al Butmeh, the coordinator for PENGON, said in a WhatsApp call. “The impact on the farmers, the impacts on the children, the impacts on the women, they live under a huge scarcity.”
Though not legally defined (yet), climate and eco apartheid have come into increasingly clear focus in recent years. In the U.S., the poor are more likely to lose everything in a wildfire than the rich. Neighborhoods historically redlined and home to communities of color have higher rates of asthma and get hotter in the summer than the surrounding areas. But this is an international phenomenon, too.
“Climate apartheid encompasses the hardening of borders and restrictions on the movements of those affected by environmental and social disruptions,” Ashley Dawson, an environmental humanities school at the City University of New York, wrote in his 2017 book Extreme Cities. Palestine, separated from the rest of the world by a wall on one side and a sea on the other, faces severe restrictions on the movement of its people under the occupation by the Israeli government.
The 2014 bombardment of the strip resulted in widespread ecological damage. A report from the Palestinian Environmental NGOs Network (PENGON) found residents reporting issues with air quality from buildings blown up by Israeli bombs, the destruction of water treatment facilities, and bombed-out soil that, even after being treated, was “either completely infertile or produce significantly lower crop yields than before,” according to interviews with residents. The report went on to note that farmers could face “delayed environmental impacts of the war.”
“That war continued, it did not actually stop in 2014,” said Al Butmeh. “There is a long-term impact for Israeli practices, whether during the war or after the war.”
The 2014 war damaged the Palestinian Water Authority’s wastewater treatment plant. The report found it resulted in untreated waste being dumped into the sea, leaving 70% of the Gaza shoreline unfit for human use. Because of the Israeli blockade of materials into Gaza, items needed to repair the plant and dig new wells for freshwater have been in short supply. A 2018 UN report warned that these compounding issues, along with uneven access to electricity, meant “an endemic disease outbreak or other public health crisis is imminent.” The report noted doctors lacked access to clean water and were not always able to safely perform surgery while Al Butmeh noted that because of unreliable electricity, hospitals are also unable to function properly.
It will take time to understand the true scope of what damage the recent bombardment has done to Palestine, but the damage comes on top of the other ecological injustices, ones that will only worsen due to climate change. The UN has deemed 96% of water in Gaza “unfit for human consumption,” largely due to damage sustained by the 2014 war to both water infrastructure and the electricity infrastructure needed to power it. The Israeli government caused the damage, then refused to let Palestinians repair it, worsening the water crisis. (The same cycle has started anew during the recent bombings, with damage to water infrastructure and pipes serving “at least 800,000 people” knocked offline, according to the New York Times.)
This intersects with the world’s inaction on climate change. The coastal aquifer that is Gaza’s main source of underground freshwater is increasingly at risk from sea level rise. Long before saltwater overtakes the land, it will puncture the freshwater lens and render the remaining drinkable water brackish. The lack of access to reliable electricity makes desalination—already an energy-intensive, expensive process—all but impossible.
Gaza is also, like much of the Middle East, expected to become even drier and hotter in the coming decades. A 2017 report found that breaching the 2-degree- Celsius (3.6-degree-Fahrenheit) goal set in the Paris Agreement—a pathway we’re currently on—would result in a 15% dip in rainfall by midcentury and 20% reduction by century’s end.
It’s that hotter, scarcer future that makes the current humanitarian crisis so unnerving. It’s a template for other autocratic or worse regimes to follow, preserving fresh air and clean water for the few at the expense of the rest. This will almost certainly be informed by previous prejudices and power structures. In a paper published just this March, researchers argued that “the evidence clearly shows that 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 procure (often violently) necessary resources.” Millions of people confined to a small strip of land with draconian policies and dwindling resources is the future other vulnerable people could face.