Holy Land or Living Hell?
Pollution, Apartheid and Protest in Occupied Palestine
by: Ethan Ganor
From the Jordan River Valley and Dead Sea Basin, through the central highlands comprising the West Bank's populated core to the fertile western hills bordering Israel, recent reports from occupied Palestine reveal a worsening environmental crisis. A labyrinth of settlements, industrial zones, dumps, military camps, fortified roads, electrified fences and a massive concrete wall-all of it installed by Israel in the West Bank since 1967 and intensified since 2000-is draining the life from this ancient land.
Destructive actions by settlers and soldiers, waste from factories and settlements, land confiscations to expand settlements and roads, the plunder of water, the mass uprooting or burning of trees, and the snaking, sunset-eclipsing structure known to Palestinians as the "Apartheid Wall" are causing the West Bank's once-lush ecology to deteriorate. The cumulative impact on the land's hydrology, topsoil, biodiversity, food security and natural beauty is severe. No longer recognizable as a "Holy Land" bountifully "flowing with milk and honey," as inscribed in religious texts and memories, Palestine's environment has become a weapon of war, deliberately designed to turn its inhabitants' lives into a living hell.
Israel's much-touted "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip, while proof that decolonization is possible, is also a smokescreen, distracting attention from the escalation of violence in the West Bank. Fully chronicling the current devastation in Palestine could fill several volumes; what follows is only a few snapshots.
Poisoning the Land
In late March, shepherds from Tuwani and Mufakara, Palestinian villages near Hebron in the southern West Bank, discovered strange, blue pellets littering their grazing fields. Suspecting these seeds as a possible cause of the mysterious deaths of dozens of goats and sheep during the previous week, villagers had them analyzed. The tests confirmed their hunch: The pellets were barley laced with fluoroacetamide, a rodenticide produced only in Israel and illegal in many other countries due to its acute toxicity.
Not just livestock, but also wild gazelles, migratory birds, snakes and other animals had been poisoned. Palestinian farmers were forced to quarantine their flocks and stop selling or using their milk, cheese and meat. On April 8, a new poison-pink pellets tainted by brodifacoum, another highly toxic, anti-coagulant rodenticide-was found at a hillside grazing area near Tuwani. Later that month, Amnesty International issued a press release condemning Israeli authorities for failing to clean up the toxic chemicals from affected areas and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Local Palestinians blame Israeli settlers from nearby Maon and Havat Maon, two small outposts south of Hebron, whose male members are notorious for assaulting Tuwani children as they walk past the settlements to school. Solidarity activists videotaped one Maon security official admitting that he knew that Havat Maon settlers had planted the poisons.
Despite this admission, no arrests were made, and the poisoning has spread. In mid-April, in Yasouf, a Palestinian village south of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, large quantities of wheat seeds boiled in brodifacoum were found.
Industrial Pollution and Dumps
While such poisonings may seem to be isolated attacks by rogue settlers, other forms of pollution in the West Bank are systemic and permanent. The landscape is blotched with Israeli factories. Based mainly on hilltops at Israeli settlements and border-area industrial zones, the factories manufacture products ranging from aluminum, plastic and fiberglass to batteries, detergents, pesticides and military items.
Because Israel's own, generally stringent, environmental laws regulating industrial processes and waste discharge are not enforced inside the Occupied Territories, the West Bank has become a sacrifice zone. Many of the factories have no environmental safeguards and unleash solid waste burned in open air, wastewater that flows into watersheds, or hazardous waste dumped and buried at outdoor sites. Lands near the foothills of industrial zones are especially vulnerable. One of the largest zones, Barqan, near Nablus, encompasses 80 factories and generates 810,000 cubic meters of wastewater per year. The wastewater flows into a wadi (a watercourse that is dry except during the rainy season) and pollutes the agricultural lands of three Palestinian villages.
On July 5, International Solidarity Movement activists joined Palestinians to demonstrate against Geshuri Industries, an Israeli-owned manufacturer of pesticides and fertilizers. Originally located in the town Kfar Saba, in Israel-until citizens obtained a court order shutting it down for pollution violations-Geshuri moved to its current site at the edge of the Palestinian town Tulkarem in 1987. Pollution from the plant has damaged citrus trees, tarnished soil and groundwater, provoked respiratory ailments among neighboring residents, and contributed to Tulkarem having Palestine's highest cancer rates. This Spring, a new wall (which annexed vast swaths of agricultural land) was constructed around the complex. Wearing blue surgical masks to avoid inhaling factory fumes, the protesters held signs and painted messages on the wall: "Remove the death factory," "Get your poison away from our children" and "This is terror!"
Illegal dumps are another chronic problem. On April 11, more than 200 people from Anarchists Against the Wall, Green Action Israel and the Palestinian village of Deir Sharaf blocked Israeli garbage trucks from transporting trash onto the grounds of Abu Shusha, the West Bank's largest quarry. In 2002, during its "Operation Defensive Shield" invasion, the Israeli army seized this site from its Palestinian owners. Since then, thousands of tons of waste have been moved covertly into the quarry, which is in close proximity to four wells and only 250 yards from the aquifer that provides Nablus with its drinking water.
An investigation by the Palestinian Hydrology Group confirmed that runoff from the dump "has killed medicinal and wild plants in the valley. It has affected the biodiversity and aesthetics of the area. Most importantly, the land is no longer fit to grow olive trees."
After three years of silence, international outrage finally erupted in early April, when Israeli journalists exposed the scheme. With tacit government approval but no official permit, settlers were churning profits from the dump by selling their trash-transport services to Israeli cities. Environmental justice scored a rare victory in July, when an Israeli court passed an injunction shutting down the dump. Yet the reservoir of refuse remains, and dozens of other dumps throughout the West Bank remain in operation. Nor has a factory above the quarry been shut down, and it continues to pump streams of foul-smelling black sludge into the olive groves below.
While Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right-wing government and extremist Israeli settlers are the immediate agents of this ecocide, a global system that benefits from and sustains the Occupation is also culpable. The US supplies the military firepower and diplomatic muscle that makes it possible; Caterpillar provides bulldozers that raze homes, trees and fields to build the wall; and financial institutions like the World Bank bestow essential economic lubricants.
In 2004, the World Bank published two reports outlining a sick version of "sustainable development" for Palestine, which accepts the reality of the wall rather than its illegality. As the wall carves its path through the West Bank, isolating communities and annexing cropland, the livelihood of tens of thousands of Palestinian families is destroyed and unemployment becomes endemic. In line with Israeli objectives, the World Bank proposes to solve this artificial problem by establishing new "industrial estates" alongside the wall, where cheap Palestinian labor, working for one-fourth Israel's minimum wage, will be exploited to produce goods for export into the globalized economy.
Already, one such estate is under construction in Tulkarem, on Palestinian land that has been annexed behind the wall. In addition, the World Bank has helped Israel raise funds to create a more "secure," "efficient" and "growth-orientated" apartheid: upgraded, high-tech checkpoints and prison gates, "smart fences," watchtowers, border crossings with radioactive "naked spy" machines that look through people's clothing, and underground tunnels to facilitate full Israeli control over Palestinian travel and a continuing monopoly on the land's natural resources. Under the apartheid regime, travel between any of the West Bank's eight population districts-Jenin, Nablus, Qalqilia, Tulkarem, Jericho, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Hebron-is barred without special permission, and Jerusalem is completely cut off by the wall. Rather than end this matrix of segregation and dispossession, the World Bank wants Israel to "ease internal closures and restore the predictable flow of goods across borders."
This normalization of apartheid not only shreds the basic human rights of Palestinians by confining them to ghettos and sweatshops, it also perpetuates the ecological devastation of the land. True sustainability can be based only upon the July 9, 2004, decision by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) requiring Israel to tear down the wall. The decision mandates the international community "not to recognize the illegal situation created by the construction of the wall, and not to render any aid or assistance in maintaining the situation created by it."
Grassroots Resistance to the Wall
With international powers unwilling to enforce the ICJ ruling and the United Nations resolutions calling for an end to occupation, Palestinian communities are mobilizing to defend their lands from annexation and destruction. Since September 2002, when Israel began building the wall's first ring to enclose the then-wealthy agricultural town of Qalqilya, the Palestinian Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations Network has coordinated the Grassroots Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign (AAWC). AAWC is rooted in nonviolent direct action, organized by Popular Committees Against the Wall in dozens of communities that are directly threatened by the wall's path.
Budrus is a small village of 1,300 people, located 20 miles west of Ramallah, where two years of fierce resistance have yielded the first case of a community successfully blocking erection of the wall on its land. Mass rallies united the whole town, as everyone from toddlers to elders converged in targeted fields and olive groves, swarming construction crews with peaceful discipline and raising enough ruckus to prompt Israel's Supreme Court to alter the wall's route. In March, after Israeli forces stormed a local wedding, opened fire and arrested a teenager, villagers spontaneously tore down 1,000 feet of a barbed-wire fence erected in lieu of the wall. Yet the cost has been high: Six village residents have been killed and hundreds wounded by army retaliation against the nonviolent struggle.
Current resistance is most active in Bil'in, a village of 1,600 also near Ramallah, where almost-daily demonstrations since February have opposed Israeli plans to annex 60 percent of the community's 1,000 acres via the wall. With support from international and Israeli solidarity activists, villagers have been employing Earth First!-style tactics. On May 4, protesters chained themselves to olive trees to obstruct the razing of an orchard situated in the wall's path. On June 1, they locked themselves into a mock wall in front of bulldozers, forcing soldiers to symbolically dismantle the wall before they could remove the activists. These actions and other creative visual stunts have generated extensive media attention but also a brutal military crackdown. Tear gas, rubber-coated metal bullets, shock grenades and a new device called "the Scream"-a huge loudspeaker that emits painful sound waves-are commonly used to disperse the demonstrators, who have not yet halted the wall's construction.
About one-third of the planned 420-mile wall is finished; 80 percent of it penetrates into the West Bank. Construction is occurring now in the Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron regions, as well as around the Ariel bloc of settlements deep inside the northern West Bank. If completed there and along the Jordan Valley, the wall stands to annex around 46 percent of the West Bank. More than 400,000 olive trees, which comprise 40 percent of Palestine's cultivated land and are the staple crop of rural communities, are estimated to have been uprooted during the last five years.
This Fall promises to be another season of intense grassroots resistance. Palestine's annual olive harvest peaks in October and November, and international activists will once again be present to challenge Israeli settler and army actions that deny Palestinians access to their land and the right to harvest their crops.
Ethan is an anti-Zionist, eco-anarchist Jew, a graduate from the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel and the founder of the Trees Not Walls Network. He owes a debt to forests for providing refuge to his grandfather for two years in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust