Continuing de-development in Palestine

This week, thousands will gather in Johannesburg (South Africa) at one of the largest international meetings ever held, the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

As the world is to promote concrete commitments to implement sustainable development, Palestinians face a process that can be termed as ‘de-development’ or the deliberate, systematic deconstruction of an indigenous economy by a dominant power.

Underdevelopment, the situation prevailing in many developing countries in the South, is distinguished from ‘de-development’ by both the intentions of the occupying power and the consequences of its policies.

‘De-development’ commenced only under Israeli occupation. Israel is unique in that its intention is the complete dispossession of the Palestinian people and the assimilation of their land and resources. As a consequence, Israel’s policies have always been designed to deprive the Palestinians of their land, water and labour with the objective of building Israel and not a competing Palestinian entity.

Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands has destroyed every aspect of Palestinian environment. Palestinian land continues to be used as dumping grounds for all forms of waste, while Israel builds chemical factories on confiscated Palestinian land, in illegally established colonies.

Since the beginning of the intifada, the popular Palestinian uprising against the occupation, Israel has uprooted over 500,000 trees and its bulldozers have razed thousands of hectares of agricultural land under the pretext of ‘security’. Settlements, by-pass roads, military zones, road blocks, and checkpoints have cut the Palestinian areas in cantons, or bantustans, making Palestinian movement virtually impossible. This is the Palestinian environmental reality. The long-term negative effects of Israel’s occupation on environment and health will be felt for generations.

The root cause of the environmental problems and those that hamper sustainable development is Israel’s colonial military occupation of Palestinian land and people. Neither sustainable development nor environmental protection can be achieved under a military colonial occupation that destroys Palestinian livelihood, infrastructure, uproots land and trees, while confining 3 million Palestinians in various bantustans, under siege for almost two years, under curfew for three months.

Palestinian farmers working on their land or harvesting their crops have been shot and killed by Israeli soldiers and settlers. Due to a military siege, closures and curfews, every Palestinian town or village has been unable to properly dispose its solid waste.

While 75 percent of the renewable water resources in the occupied Palestinian territories are used by and for Israel, its army and settlers have repeatedly destroyed Palestinian water tanks and pipes to deprive Palestinians from their own water. The effects on health and sanitation has meant that almost 60 percent of Gaza’s children suffer from infections and tens of thousands of children under the age of five suffer from diarrhea.

In general terms, the environmental impact of Israel’s military activities on Palestinians fall into three broad categories: land degradation, water resource damage and a halt to essential infrastructure work.

Land degradation is occurring rapidly owing to the felling of thousands of trees and orchards and the blockade of roads used by Palestinians, resulting in thousands of new dirt tracks being created as alternative transport routes. Water resource damage is occurring through damage to environmental facilities, particularly sewage infrastructure, and due to restrictions imposed on proper waste disposal. Owing to the internal closures, outlying Palestinian villages are being denied access to drinking water. Many infrastructure projects supported by the international aid community to improve the Palestinian environment have been brought to a halt because of the closures.

Two hundred thousand Palestinians living in 218 West Bank villages are not connected to a water network and therefore have no running water. This population suffers a severe water crisis. They are unable to meet their basic water needs, including basic personal hygiene and house cleaning, and as a result, face significant health risks. The restrictions on movement imposed by Israel’s occupation army since the beginning of the crisis aggravate the situation and make it difficult for tankers to transport water to affected communities.

The average Palestinian in the West Bank consumes 60 litres of water a day. The precise consumption of residents in communities that are not connected to a water network is not known. However, it is significantly less than the overall average. By comparison, average per capita consumption in Israel and the settlements is 350 litres a day. The minimum quantity of water recommended by the United States Agency for International Development for household and urban use alone is 100 litres a day per person.

There are 36 Palestinian villages that are completely dependent on water vendors to supply their water needs. During periods of the siege, these villages (with a total of 86,255 inhabitants) have had no water supplied to them for periods ranging from a week to two months. Furthermore, owing to the difficulties in access to water springs, the price of trucked water has increased considerably at a time when employment and income for Palestinians has plummeted.

The occupation legacy is responsible for the gross lack of attention to environmental issues and investment in physical infrastructure within the Palestinian cities and villages themselves. This includes a degraded solid waste management infrastructure, lack of wastewater treatment plants and proper water supply facilities, and degraded groundwater quality and quantity (particularly in Gaza). A World Bank report states that there has been no effort to improve the sewage situation in the southern West Bank and untreated sewage threatens to pollute the water supply.

Land confiscation for establishing settlements has had a major impact on Palestinians and their economy, especially the agriculture sector, which accounts for about 30 per cent of Palestinian national income. The dispersed location of Israeli settlements is an important factor in the reduction of open spaces, including the loss of biologically important areas, such as forests and sensitive ecosystems.

Bypass roads, which are established to enable settlers and Israel’s occupation army to move around without traversing Palestinian residential areas in the belief that their security is improved, contribute to a further deterioration of the environment. The roads are designed for moving at high speeds, which require that the angles be minimized: valleys are therefore filled up and hills bulldozed to make way. No buildings or trees are allowed to remain on a wide strip of 50-100 metres on either side. This translates into a 350-metre wide swath 40 of landscape destruction over more than 200 kilometres of bypass roads already built. An additional 250 kilometres of bypass roads are in the planning stages.

In past six months, Israel has deliberately destroyed a complete public infrastructure, including educational institutions, NGO’s, waternetworks, and it has damaged and destroyed foreign-funded development projects. The reason Israel continues to follow such policies is that it has not yet renounced its claims on or sovereignty over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Until, and if, Israel takes this drastic step and Israel ends its colonial occupation, de-development will continue.

This article was first published in the newspaper of the NGO Forum at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 28 August 2002.