In the Midst of an Environmental Calamity in Gaza Lies an Opportunity

By Joseph Mayton

Beyond the most obvious hardships brought about by the Gaza blockade, there is another less commonly discussed environmental calamity in the making that could have terrible long-term implications. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Strip is causing severe water shortages and preventing farmers from tilling their land, leading to environmental damage that could take decades to repair.

For farmer Yussif Ghaffar who grows wheat outside Khan Yunis, the blockade has meant that he has been unable to replace old equipment, and without the aid of the UNDP his fields would likely have rotted in the summer sun. Others, he says, are not so lucky. Under the blockade, many farmers cannot access their lands or lack the tools to work it, causing massive soil depletion.

Since the 2008 war, an estimated one-fifth of all cultivated land in the Strip has been lost due to environmental degradation, the UNDP said. Soil pollution is now at its highest levels in history, salinity causing massive erosion; sewage and agriculture run off have left much of the land infertile, with long term consequences, including an increase in children’s nitrate poisoning. In addition, water shortages have worsened over the past few years. The Strategic Foresight Group reported earlier this year that per capita annual renewable water availability is expected to drop from 750 cubic metres to 500 cubic metres by 2025. Sewage is also being dumped into the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza, which according to numerous environmental groups could have lasting effects on marine life. This could curtail another Gazan livelihood, fishing, if action is not taken.

Yet despite the overall pessimism about the environmental state of Gaza there is still an opportunity to turn things around.

Ending the blockade is the first step. Beyond that there are new grassroots efforts, by Israeli and Palestinian environmental activists, to bring the environment to the forefront of the discussions. Environmentalism has become the great unifier in today’s world. Look at Sri Lanka, where former enemies in the post war country have joined forces to make clean water available to the population at large.

When talking about the environment, suddenly, the Israeli and Palestinian lexicon is the same. The political disagreements seem less important when the topic shifts to environmental calamities. Water shortages are water shortages. The death of the Dead Sea is the death of the Dead Sea. International NGOs such as Friends of the Earth Middle East, which comprises Israelis and Palestinians, issue joint statements using one language to address environmental dangers such as the Jordan River’s future. The same should happen with regards to Gaza. For once, supposed enemies can share the same threat analysis. This is one of the achievements of the environmental movement.

I recently spoke to Ari Adelsmann, a New York-based activist, whose independent project involves teaming up with Jewish communities across the globe to end the Gaza blockade and combining Israeli technology with Palestinian needs on the ground. It is a project that brings activists together without getting bogged down by organisational structures at present, but one Adelsmann hopes will create an umbrella for independent activists to work together. Israel, Adelsmann says, has been able to “green the desert” through its technological superiority, so “why can’t this be done to save the ground in Gaza?” He argues that Israel acknowledges that environment is an essential component to any sustainable peace effort with Gaza. His Palestinian counterpart, Adel Hassan agrees: “The environment is something we all have to take care of because it crosses borders and affects all people,” he says. Together, Hassan says, new technology and manpower can help shift the idea that Israelis and Palestinians cannot work together.

In the end, Hassan and Adelsmann believe that through environmental discussions and negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians will be able to build a common ground that can become an important impetus for peace. Hassan says that there are a number of Israelis who are ready and willing to work together with Palestinians on environmental issues because “it is both our futures at stake if we do nothing”. It is a win-win situation: save the environment, take steps towards Palestinian-Israeli peace.

Joseph Mayton is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Bikya Masr News Organization.

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