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War's Environmental Footprint: the Israel-Hamas Conflict and Pathways to Sustainability

By Stathis Poulantzas

  

On 7 October this year, Israel suffered from a surprise assault by Gaza, resulting in around 1,200 deaths and the capture of more than 200 hostages. Israel, announcing that it entered a state of war with Hamas, began a series of air strikes targeted towards the Gaza strip, reportedly leading to over 11,000 deaths as of writing, destroying Palestinian military power and governing capabilities. Despite global calls for a ceasefire from entities like the UN, the war is only intensifying, transforming into a worsening humanitarian disaster daily. As one side refuses to release the reportedly 242 hostages, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intensify their attacks, mainly targeting Gaza City, greatly damaging Gaza’s infrastructure and displacing and killing many civilians. 


Here’s a brief overview of Hamas, Gaza and Palestine to better understand the conflict. Hamas, ruling Gaza since 2007, considered a terrorist group by most Western nations and organisations, aims to replace Israel with an Islamic state, engaging in multiple conflicts with the country. Gaza, more formally known as the Gaza Strip, is a small but densely populated (around 2.2 million people) region located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. According to BBC, “the West Bank and Gaza, which are referred to as Palestinian territories, as well as East Jerusalem and Israel all formed part of a land known as Palestine from Roman times until the mid-20th Century”, and since the declaration of Israel’s independence in 1948 are still considered as Palestinian territories. 


Setting aside the major humanitarian, political, as well as economic dimensions of the conflict, this article will focus on the war’s significant environmental repercussions. To commence, before the outbreak of the war, Israel and Palestine already suffered from substantial ecological problems. More precisely, the region has already experienced a 1.5°C rise in temperature, which stands much above the average, which has led to a decline in rainfall, already resulting in increasing droughts. In fact, in the absence of significant action, the mean temperature in the area is set to reach approximately 4.4°C by 2100, surpassing the overall global predictions, while a further decrease of rainfall by 1/5 by 2050 is expected to cause increasingly more droughts. Such a drastic turn of events would significantly hurt the Palestinian population, who would suffer from extreme heat, water and food shortages, among others, as a result of the Israeli occupation. Further, according to the Environmental Ministry of Israel, another consequence of this climate disaster will be an increase in sea levels, majorly impacting the infrastructure of the region’s coastal cities, especially in the Gaza Strip. Israeli and Palestinian leaders have acknowledged the situation’s urgency, committing to further environmental action, such as reducing greenhouse emissions.


Nevertheless, the conflict between Hamas and Israel is putting the region’s climate at even further danger. To specify, some impacts of the dispute are Israel’s destruction of essential infrastructure in Gaza, leaving the strip of land without water and energy in several parts, damaging the sewage systems, and creating appalling hygiene conditions for the inhabitants, potentially escalating health issues in the region. Moreover, bombings and rocket attacks also contribute to the environmental threat. Ammunition generally contains heavy metals and other chemicals that can remain a health threat to humans, animals and ecosystems for decades after the end of each conflict. These chemicals will cause devastating effects on the quality of air and soil, as well as water quality. As the conflict progresses, if a ceasefire is not agreed upon soon, the damage to the environment and natural systems, such as fauna and tree vegetation, will be irreversible.


Furthermore, the Israel-Palestine clash is also expected to strain the Middle East's present and future efforts to tackle climate change. Netanyahu's government has naturally prioritised political alliances over environmental issues. Meanwhile, Palestine is in no position or interest right now to make meaningful ecological progress. Any Palestinian commitments are contingent on whether the Israeli occupation continues. To put it more simply, “the average Palestinian wakes up in the morning worrying about how to get to work without crossing a checkpoint. Their priority is the [Israeli] occupation. For the Israelis, it’s security, the sense that there is a dangerous enemy on the other side that needs to be controlled.” Even if the war ends, if an actual two-state solution is not found,  the long-term feasibility of addressing climate issues in a region deeply divided by political conflict will be severely questioned. 


In addition, other nations’ political and economic concerns complicate their willingness to provide severe environmental help. For instance, according to the IMF, if the conflict were to be prolonged and expected, it could negatively affect the global economy, especially oil prices and growth. This may reduce the ability and willingness of wealthier countries to support climate-ravaged, less-endowed nations in the Middle East. Moreover, though the COP28 climate summit, hosted this year in Dubai, is crucial as potential solutions could be found from the climate problems arising from the war, it is likely to place too much emphasis on the political aspects of the conflict, ignoring the climate agenda. Finally, the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the Summit and has been advancing normalisation with Israel, might be planning to use this platform to further this agenda. However, Israeli actions in Gaza and the resulting Arab public sentiment against normalisation may complicate this, especially regarding the participation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


In conclusion, the Israel-Palestine conflict significantly impacts environmental sustainability in the region. It worsens rising temperatures, decreased rainfall, and sea levels, especially in densely populated areas such as Gaza. The war damages infrastructure and contaminates the environment, degrading air, soil, and water quality. To tackle these challenges, two approaches are vital: first, creating an independent environmental collaboration framework, possibly with international mediation, to prioritise environmental and climate issues despite the conflict. Second, using technology and innovation, such as Israel’s desalination and irrigation techniques, adapted for Palestinian use under international guidance, alongside investing in sustainable infrastructure in affected areas. However, without a long-term peace solution, these measures might have a limited long-term impact on the region's climate crisis. 

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