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Eco-Roundup: 5 Reasons Israel's Bombardment of Gaza is an Environmental Justice Crisis

At the end of every month, I assemble a round-up of stories I’m following and issues I’m covering, with palate cleansers at the end.

It’s been a gutting month. The reason this monthly update is coming two weeks late is that I spent much of October the way many of us did: glued to social media, absorbing news of Israel’s U.S.-funded bombing of Gaza and the mounting Palestinian civilian death toll, distracted from every responsibility and commitment on my calendar. When I wasn’t frozen, I was clumsily trying to figure out where to put my feet. I realized quickly that my position of power is as a journalist. So I’ve been working with my union and other media labor groups to push back against the workplace retaliation and doxing that many media workers are facing for expressing their views on Gaza.  

 I also decided to use my very specific journalistic lens — the intersection of criminalization and environmental crises — to do some reporting on Gaza that would be relevant for the people that pay attention to my work, especially those working in environmental and climate spaces. So today, you can find a new episode of Drilled (the podcast where I work as a senior editor) featuring an interview I did with Abeer Butmeh, the head of the Palestinian environmental organization PENGON.

Butmeh explained to me why the bombing of Gaza and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories is an environmental justice issue. This season of the podcast focuses on the criminalization of land and water defenders globally, and Butmeh’s experience is vital to understanding how that kind of criminalization – which we see even in the U.S. — functions when your very identity is considered criminal. Butmeh argues that there can be no environmental justice without Palestinian liberation.

I highly encourage you to listen to my interview with Butmeh. In the meantime, here are just five (of many) reasons that the bombing of Gaza is an environmental justice issue, drawn from my interview with Butmeh, along with additional sources that I’ll link.

  1. Because bombs poison air, mess up soil, and destroy water infrastructure.

 It’s instructive to look at the last major Israeli attack on Gaza to understand the environmental impact of what’s happening now. Butmeh’s organization PENGON did that in 2015. The Palestinian Water Authority estimated that the damage to water infrastructure in the 2014 bombardment of Gaza, which killed 2,100 people, amounted to $34.5 million. When there is no electricity, when it’s unsafe for people who work at water treatment plants to go to work, and when facilities are bombed, there is no wastewater treatment, and sewage flows into the Mediterranean Sea. At the end of 2014, 70 percent of the Gaza coast was unfit for swimming. Bombs like white phosphorous pollute the air with dangerous gases. The destruction of buildings sends dust and particulate matter flying through the air. With all services shut down, there is no one to collect trash, and it piles up. The 2014 bombardment destroyed 250,000 trees — largely citrus, olives, grapes, and other fruits —and 1,000 greenhouses.

  1. Because Israel prevents Palestinians from accessing clean water.

Even when bombs aren’t destroying water treatment plants and pipes in Gaza, it’s impossible for Palestinians in the region to supply themselves with clean water. That’s because Gaza has been under a blockade by Israel for the last 16 years (see the Drilled interview for some basics about why). Seventy percent of the equipment, like pumps and chemicals, needed for water treatment are restricted, deemed as items that could be used for military purposes. Frequent power outages, partly driven by fuel restrictions, mean the water treatment systems don’t work properly. The result is more than 90 percent of the water has been deemed unfit for drinking, and 26 percent of childhood diseases are water related.

  1. Because displacement has been greenwashed. 

Like in the U.S., settler-colonialism in Israel has involved efforts to transform the land and rewrite its story. In Israeli-controlled areas, much of that work has been executed by the Jewish National Fund, which has called itself the “Environmental Arm of the Jewish People,” dedicated to “turning the desert green.” JNF’s work has included planting thousands of trees on top of villages that Palestinians were forced to abandon. As in the U.S., sites of mass displacement became national parks.

  1. Because Israel is systematically separating Palestinians from the ecological systems that make them who they are.

Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is happening during the olive harvest, which is a joyful and important annual ritual. As Butmeh put it to me, olive trees are central to Palestinian identity and an important part of the economy. This year more than usual, Palestinians on the West Bank have been prevented from harvesting the olives by armed Israeli settlers and soldiers. In at least one case, a man, Bilal Saleh, was shot and killed as he attempted to harvest olives with his family.

  1. Because without sovereignty, Palestinians cannot implement climate action plans.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank has a climate action plan, however with 60 percent of the West Bank under strict Israeli control, it’s virtually impossible to adapt to the increase in heatwaves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and sand and dust storms that Palestinian territories are expected to experience. In Gaza and the West Bank, solar panels are not just a way to combat the climate crisis, they can also be a means of survival where the Israeli government restricts access to the electric grid or fuel. However, Israeli restrictions on Palestinian construction create major barriers for organizations like PENGON when they attempt to support communities constructing solar energy projects. For example, in 2017, Israeli soldiers with assault rifles dismantled and confiscated 96 solar panels that were providing much-needed relief to a West Bank village, according to a Washington Post report. More recently, the Israeli military bombed solar panels that were powering Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, according to Al Jazeera.

In case you missed it:

Two episodes I worked on for Drilled as an editor aired this month: one on why Indigenous land defenders are targeted by extractive industries and one examining the uproar over climate activists throwing tomato soup on a painting. As I alluded to earlier, I’ve been helping National Writers Union with this survey, for media workers who have faced retaliation for their views on the war on Gaza. I also signed a letter from the newly formed group, Writers Against the War on Gaza, asserting solidarity with the Palestinian people and another letter condemning Israel’s killing of journalists in Gaza. My name isn’t showing up on that second one yet, I guess because I was late in signing. The other thing that has me late on everything is that I was totally absorbed by a reporting trip to Standing Rock the first couple weeks in November, which I’ll write about another time.

"Sorry we concealed those documents for so long and told everyone they didn't exist"

I recently finished movement lawyer Jeffrey Haas’s book The Assassination of Fred Hampton. There’s a lot there that’s interesting but one of the things that struck me as I read it is that it was absolutely not inevitable that we learned as much as we know now about the FBI’s involvement in Hampton’s assassination and targeting Chicago’s Black Panther movement. Those attorneys and their clients fought relentlessly and strategically for years to finally uncover the FBI’s role. It wasn’t until six or seven years after the assassination that a lot of the documents were turned over. It’s easy to walk away from these kinds of fights for truth and transparency, whether you’re a journalist, attorney, or researcher, and I wonder how often important truths have stayed buried, and how much more likely that becomes with journalistic institutions crumbling. 

“I don’t think we were targeted as journalists. I know we were targeted as journalists.”

At least 42 journalists and media workers have been killed in Israel’s war on Gaza, according to a tally maintained by the Committee to Protect Journalists. To understand the context of this, I watched Al Jazeera’s Polk award-winning documentary The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, which documents the assassination of the well-known Palestinian journalist last year. The Israeli government initially claimed that Palestinians had killed her. Then they claimed she was killed in crossfire. Reporter Sharif Abdel Kouddous worked with Forensic Architecture and Al-Haq to confirm that the Israelis' story was impossible and that the Israeli soldier that killed Abu Akleh likely could see the words “PRESS” on her vest and likely shot to kill. Even though Shireen was a U.S. citizen, the U.S. did not conduct a serious investigation or even interview witnesses. This is what impunity looks like, folks.

It’s not that the life of journalists are worth more than those of the over 11,000 men, women, and children the Israeli military has killed in this conflict. It’s that by silencing journalists you silence the truth. You eliminate a person who knows how to show the world the chronic lying that underpins Israel’s occupation. You erase all the stories that person would have told.

"Their goal, their aim, is the land. And they're using the war in order to seize the land."

I thought this NPR story by Mary Louise Kelly powerfully revealed the Israeli military's aggressive tactics against Palestinians carrying out ordinary Palestinian activities, like harvesting olives, while simultaneously showing the lengths the Israelis will go to prevent the reality of their oppression to be covered by the press. Farmer Ayoub Abuhejleh escorts a group of journalists and human rights activists to simply look from a hilltop at the olive trees Israelis have prevented him from tending. To the surprise of all present, he is detained and briefly disappeared. Returning later to the intense relief of his family, he describes how he was blindfolded, handcuffed, mocked, and questioned.

Palate Cleansers

I cover topics that are heavy and distressing to take in, so I'm ending these posts with things that make me feel grounded: food, nature, community.

Something Delicious: Food Justice for Palestine

The cookbook I use more than any other is Falastin, by Sami Tamimi. Almost every recipe I make out of that book is wonderful, and the portions are always generous, encouraging sharing. I know there are other great Palestinian cookbooks (including activist Yasmin Khan's Zaitoun, which I also have and like a lot), and I want to know about them, so please tell me.

I worked for years in the service industry, and I know some of my friends who read this still do. So I wanted to share that I was really heartened to see that there's even a Palestine solidarity movement for food people: the Palestinian-led Hospitality for Humanity. "Israel has long weaponized food, erasing Palestinian people while claiming their cuisine. Here in the U.S., the appropriation of Palestinian foods as 'Israeli' has led to more than Israelis profiting off of Palestinian culture; it is an erasure that has had real implications for Palestinians. It allows us to negate their cultural currency, and turn our attention away with more ease when we see Palestinian death," the group's Pledge for Palestine says.

They're asking that folks in the hospitality industry pledge to:

  1. Call your congressional representatives to demand an immediate ceasefire and an end to unconditional U.S. funding of Israel. 
  2. Divest from products, events, and trips that promote Israel until it dismantles its apartheid system and military occupation. 
  3. Invest in events and projects that promote justice for Palestinians, whether connecting to a local organization to learn how to support, or amplify Palestinian voices and support them to share their food and culture on their own terms.

Garden Update: Still Gangly and Yellow

Last month, with my trip to Standing Rock and Bismarck fast approaching, I made big plans to harvest all the herbs on my deck and carefully preserve them. I knew it would drop into the 40s before I returned, and my precious creatures would shrivel and die never to have their food destiny fulfilled. I did succeed in pickling the last of the yellow, red, and green chiles and with red onions and garlic. But I couldn't get it together to deal with all the thyme and basil and sage and other herbs begging for my love. I decided to let it go. In order to show up in a moment of war and genocide, when our voices are truly needed, some of the other things we would normally do just have to be dropped. It's what's right. Outside, though, the big, gangly, yellow marigolds are still blooming. Yesterday, I ventured out and realized that while I was busy the basil stayed green in the cold, and new red chiles are growing.

Bulletin Board: Land Taxes are Due

Next week a lot of us will be off work for Thanksgiving, and many of us will be feasting. By now, we're all aware that the Thanksgiving origin story transforms brutal colonization into a fairy tale. For non-Indigenous people especially, it's a good time to sit with the processes of dispossession and genocide that made it possible for us to live where we do and to understand the links between what happened here and what's happening in Palestine. One way to acknowledge this is to donate a "land tax," a voluntary annual contribution that non-Indigenous people make to an Indigenous-led group in the place where they live. In New York, we have the Manna-hatta Fund, which goes to the American Indian Community House.