Palestine: ‘Climate change
is not just a natural phenomenon but a political one.’
Abeer Butmeh is an environmental activist from Palestine and coordinator of the Palestinian Environmental NGO Network (PENGON). She talks to Muna Dajani about her work with PENGON and how she sees climate justice as central to the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
Working on environmental issues in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), and on climate change campaigns in particular, might not seem like a priority, especially in the context of the Israeli occupation. However, it is relevant as it pertains to the everyday access to natural resources, and their use and control. After decades of precarious conditions related to military and resource exploitation, working on combating climate change and its impacts cannot be separated from politics.
Climate change is therefore not just a natural phenomenon but a political one, exacerbating pre-existing injustice and inequality. The Israeli occupation exacerbates the climate risks facing Palestinians by denying them the right to manage their land and resources, making them more vulnerable to climate-related events.
In the OPT, climate change advocacy and activism take place on two fronts: the global and the local. We, as civil society organizations and individuals, participate in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Conference of the Parties (COP), as we see these as a useful platform to highlight the effects of climate change and raise awareness of the impact of the Israeli occupation. While the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s role and ability to implement adaptation policies remain restricted, it is important to be represented at such conferences as they provide a platform for awareness-raising and advocacy on how to tackle climate change under conditions of military occupation and resource exploitation. The PA’s role in designing and implementing effective adaptation strategies is limited under such conditions – hence the need to work locally.
This is why we work on the Climate Justice campaign, which is an initiative to mainstream renewable energy through advocacy and lobbying. We believe energy transformation is critical for tackling climate change. Palestinians in the OPT are forced to depend on the infrastructure of the Israeli occupation for most of their electricity supply. Therefore, any climate justice advocacy must consider energy independence and sovereignty as its objective. At PENGON we are working on many issues that target women in the field of renewable energy. Climate change work in the OPT has largely disregarded the role of women. Our work at PENGON has focused on revising the PA’s energy strategy and relevant legislation to ensure gender is taken into account.
Our work also includes devising campaigns to confront controversial projects in which European countries are involved with Israel, with total disregard for the Israeli occupation and its practices, allowing for its normalization. One such campaign is against the underwater power cable known as the EuroAsia Interconnector, a project between Israel, Cyprus and Greece aimed at connecting the national grids of these countries. We participate in lobby tours in Europe to highlight how such endeavours are not only are detrimental for the environment, but also make European governments complicit in Israeli human rights violations and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and resources. Locally, we work on lobbying and advocacy in order to mainstream climate change in the PA’s national strategy. Also, many initiatives such as Earth Hour, Fridays for Future and others are also organized locally by Palestinian youth and civil society.
The agricultural communities are the most vocal about the impacts of climate change, as their livelihoods have been transformed by a combination of Israeli occupation practices and climatic shifts. Farmers have had to devise adaptive measures to overcome these factors, such as crop variation, water-saving irrigation methods and the adoption of traditional approaches to agriculture. However, farmers realize the complexity of adopting such strategies and implementing them on the ground. The Israeli occupation has now designated more than half of the agricultural land in the Jordan Valley as closed military zones. Consequently, Bedouin communities who depend heavily on pasture land and livestock have had to adapt to limited access to ever-shrinking areas and natural resources. Relying on rainwater for their agriculture and animal husbandry means that they are highly vulnerable and at risk because of fluctuating rainfall and temperature change. The injustice is exposed when comparing their situation to that of Israeli settlers, who enjoy a reliable water supply and support of their agricultural production.
Such protracted injustice regarding the conditions of resource distribution, combined with the imminent threat of climate change impacts on Palestinian communities, means that climate change is framed as a justice issue in Palestine and not merely an issue of state-led legislation. This is why the role of women is at the heart of the Climate Justice campaign. Some areas in the West Bank, such as the Jordan Valley, are prime examples of the unjust and unequal impacts of climate change on the same geographical areas. While Palestinian farmers in villages such as Al Auja suffer from drought and water scarcity, the illegal Israeli settlements nearby enjoy access to water for their irrigated lands.
We highlighted such unequal realities in ‘From Another Side’, an exhibition highlighting Israeli human rights violations in relation to the Palestinian environment. Using photos taken from the same location, one shot shows the reality of life in the Palestinian community, while the other shows the Israeli side in order to expose discrimination and injustice in resource distribution and access. We also focus on publishing reports and studies to highlight such realities and even lobby for accountability for such actions in UN institutions and the European Commission. We are lobbying against the Europe–Israel gas pipeline. We also worked on the Stop Mekorot campaign (Mekorot is the Israeli water company), raising awareness about how this company is implementing water injustice by controlling Palestinian access and rights to use their water sources, and denying Palestinians access. These campaigns are connecting the local with the global and creating linkages beyond borders to expose how injustice can be resisted and transformed. The struggle over climate injustice is therefore a collective struggle that we as Palestinians need to fight collectively with our allies and counterparts all over the world.
Recognizing the intergenerational aspect of climate change also pushes us, as environmental institutions and practitioners, to consider the role of youth in addressing this climate crisis and transforming it into an opportunity for positive change. We run initiatives, such as the sustainable schools project, that aim to enhance the skills of young environmental activists and highlight their potential in mainstreaming and tackling climate change issues. The active involvement of youth in global events such as Earth Hour is also indicative of how climate change is a global concern that requires local action.
Photo: A portrait of Abeer Butmeh, an environmental activist from Palestine. Romel De Vera.