Compounding Vulnerability: Impacts of Climate Change on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank

VOL. 41


No. 3
P. 38
Compounding Vulnerability: Impacts of Climate Change on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank


Compounding Vulnerability: Impacts of Climate Change on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank   Israeli occupation practices exacerbate environmental stresses.


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By Michael Mason, Mark Zeitoun, and Ziad Mimi

Coping with (and adapting to) climatological hazards is commonly understood in intergovernmental and aid agency fora as a purely technical matter. This article examines the UN Development Programme’s stakeholder consultations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in order to challenge the donor-driven technical-managerial framing of Palestinian climate vulnerability by showing how Israeli occupation practices exacerbate environmental stresses. While emphasizing the importance of social, economic, and political contexts in shaping populations’ responses to climate change in general, the authors demonstrate the multiple ways in which the occupation specifically compounds hazards reveals it as constitutive of Palestinian climate vulnerability.

At the December 2009 fifteenth conference of the parties (COP15) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Copenhagen, 130 heads of state and government affirmed their commitments to address climate change, including Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Israeli President Shimon Peres. Observers hoping that shared climate risks would be an area for Palestinian-Israeli cooperation were disappointed. Both leaders acknowledged that significant climate change was forecasted by the end of this century for the Eastern Mediterranean region: its impacts, Fayyad noted, included decreased precipitation, significant warming, more frequent extreme weather events, and a rise in sea level. There was also a shared recognition that the key hazards posed by these changes—greater water scarcity, falling agricultural productivity, an increased probability of flash floods, and saline intrusion into groundwater—will be accentuated by a growing population.

There the commonality of concerns ended. “Carbon molecules carry no passport,” stated Peres, inviting Israel’s neighbors—including the PA—into a regional environmental taskforce to tackle climate change. Rejecting this offer, the Palestinian delegation pointed out that the inhabitants of Gaza and West Bank are denied the freedom of movement enjoyed by carbon molecules. Indeed, the Palestinians had been granted only limited access to COP15, as observers, following lobbying by the Arab League. In his statement in Copenhagen, Fayyad highlighted the difficulties of representing a territory under occupation, whose full membership in UNFCCC could come only with sovereign statehood. The frustrations of a Palestinian representative with contested legitimacy and the long-term impacts of climate change may be the last concern of Palestinians suffering the daily effects of occupation. Gaza farmers who grow crops in brackish water only to see them barred from export markets do not have the luxury to consider climate-change projections, and neither do herders in the southern Hebron hills routinely subject to settler violence.

But while climate change is not the most pressing issue for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the climate risks are significant and will compound the current hazards caused or aggravated by the Israeli occupation. As confirmed by recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) consultations on climate adaptation in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of most Palestinians pale in comparison with the effects of the Israeli occupation. The “climate vulnerability” approach used here attempts to reconcile this tension between immediate living conditions and external climate impacts. It thus adds to the understanding of the effects of the occupation and challenges those views—such as the Israeli position in Copenhagen—that separate environmental issues from politics. The expected effects of climate change are likely to compound the negative effects of the occupation, primarily by impairing existing coping mechanisms or forcing the adoption of new ones. As important, the policy discourse on climate change affects not only Palestinian living conditions and livelihoods but also state-building efforts.

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MICHAEL MASON is senior lecturer in environmental geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

MARK ZEITOUN is senior lecturer in international development at the University of East Anglia.

ZAID MIMI is an associate professor in the Civil Engineering Department, Birzeit University.